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HIV Viral Load Testing

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What HIV Viral Load Test Results Mean

The HIV viral load test measures the number of HIV copies in a milliliter of blood.

  • If your HIV viral load is high, HIV is reproducing and the disease may progress more quickly. A high HIV viral load is 50,000 to 100,000 copies. It can be as high as 1 million or more.
  • If your HIV viral load is low, HIV may not be actively reproducing and the disease may progress more slowly. A low viral load is between 20 and 500 copies. However, what you want is an undetectable  viral load
  • If your HIV viral load can't be detected, this does not mean you are cured. The level of HIV virus may be so low that the test can't pick it up. A more sensitive test may be able to detect it. It's important to also know that the HIV viral load test does not measure HIV in other parts of the body where HIV may be present. Only about 2% of HIV is in the blood. For most patients, the goal of treatment is to reach an undetectable viral load, which is currently defined as less than 20 copies. 

Remember: Even if your HIV viral load is undetectable, you can still infect others.

How the HIV Viral Load Test Is Used

The HIV viral load test results have been helpful in many ways.

Medical research. The HIV viral load test confirms that HIV is present even when CD4 counts are high and no symptoms are present. This means that HIV is not inactive (called latent).

Diagnosis. The HIV viral load test can detect a viral load a few days after HIV infection and may be useful for early diagnosis. This is quicker than the standard HIV antibody test, which can be falsely negative for two to six months after infection.

Disease management. The HIV viral load test shows how well medications are controlling the virus. If a drug is working well, it lowers the HIV viral load by 90% within weeks. Within six months, it should continue to drop to fewer than 20 copies.

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