Table of Contents
- HIV RNA Test Window Period
- What is RNA?
- RNA in HIV
- How it Works: Why So Early?
- What is Viral Load?
- When is HIV RNA Testing Used?
- Other Testing Window Periods
- 4th Generation Antigen/Antibody Test
- Questions & Answers
- Conclusion: Importance of Early Detection
When it comes to HIV, no possible victim of this well known virus is going to want to wait weeks, or even months, for test results. For those that had the misfortune to be in high risk situations where infection is likely, not knowing is agony. Some would say the ‘not knowing’ is worse than knowing you have HIV, because at least then you can begin treatment.
The HIV RNA Test can yield accurate results beginning from 1 – 3 weeks (9−11 days) after exposure.
With the earliest possible results, your fastest option is easily the HIV RNA (viral load) test. That being said, it is also the most expensive form of testing on the market. Even then, that cost easily pales in comparison to the medical cost of years of antiviral treatment (Which will increase with high viral load).It’s important to catch the virus early, when viral load is very low.
What is RNA?
RNA stands for ‘Ribonucleic Acid’, present in all living cells. RNA’s top role is to act as a sort of messenger, conveying instructions for protein synthesis from DNA. In some viruses, RNA carries genetic information, instead of DNA.
RNA in HIV: HIV’s genetic material is composed of RNA, rather than DNA. Specific lines of RNA can be detected by NAT testing (Nucleic Acid Testing). HIV RNA testing is also known as NAT testing.
In March of 1885, the FDA approved the first antibody test related to the HIV virus, and antibody tests have been the most popular, and common, testing method for HIV since. The problem with these tests, and why they present with a later testing window, is that they measure the body’s reaction to the virus and not the virus in itself. It takes time for the body to react to the HIV virus.
The HIV RNA (viral load) test, on the other hand, measures the amount of virus itself in the body directly. More specifically, the HIV RNA tests measure genetic material known as RNA from virions in blood plasma.
What is Viral Load?
The amount of virus in the body at any given time. When referring to HIV or AIDS, patients want their viral load to be as low as possible. Today, it is possible with proper medical treatment to get a patient’s viral load so low it can no longer be detectable on viral load tests, and it becomes very difficult to transmit the virus to others.
The goal of today’s treatment is to in fact decrease viral load to undetectable levels, slowing, and often stopping, the progression of the virus. Unfortunately, we can’t yet eliminate the virus altogether, and stopping treatment will cause the virus to rebound; viral load increases.
When is HIV RNA Testing Used?
HIV RNA testing is more commonly used in high risk situations where infection is likely or conditions are dangerous. Though the testing window is early, results are not as accurate as antibody testing. Positive results can be misleading, and subsequent testing is often required.
There are three main types of HIV testing, HIV RNA being one. The other two include antigen testing (antibodies produced to combat virus) and combination testing.
4th Generation Antigen/Antibody Test
The average window period for 4th generation antigen/antibody tests falls around 25 days to two months, but can stretch as far as three months. Though the window falls at a later time frame, accuracy rates can be up to 99.97%- much more accurate than the early detection HIV RNA testing.
Q: I think I might have caught HIV this past weekend, but it was only a couple days ago.
Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure whether or not you’ve contracted HIV within the past 72 hours; there is yet no tests that work this fast. Your best course of action is to make an appointment with your health care provider and discuss your full range of options. You can also be seen at any free clinic. Though they may or may not be able to test for this, the physician will easily be able to provide advice and explanations.
Q: I have had many partners these past few months, and might have caught HIV from one of them.
Antibody tests work at least 3 months after infection with a 99.97% accuracy rate (much more accurate than others). You want to look for acute symptoms before the asymptomatic period (no symptoms, when many think there is nothing wrong and don’t seek treatment). The most common symptoms of this early acute phase are:
- Body rashes
- Sore throats
- Severe headaches
Anyone of these symptoms appearing ‘out of the blue’ will raise red flags with most people, wanting an explanation for these strange, intense headaches where they rarely had headaches before, or this odd fever and sore throat.
Q: Where can I get HIV tested?
First and foremost, your health care provider/doctor can administer HIV testing. Testing can also be provided by most hospitals, community health centers, clinics, and home testing kits can also be purchased online.
If you aren’t sure where to go or what method to use, discuss options with your doctor.
The earlier HIV is found, the earlier treatment can be started and the greater the treatment options available. That means better health care, and greater quality of life! With today’s advanced form of HIV treatment and incredible HIV testing options, there is no reason this disease should change a person’s life like it once did.