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Viral Load Measurement

Results

A viral load test measures how much human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is in the blood. The results can take up to 2 weeks.

The normal values listed here—called a reference range—are just a guide. These ranges vary from lab to lab and depend upon which testing method is used (RT-PCR, bDNA, NASBA). Your lab may have a different range for what's normal. Your lab report should contain the range your lab uses. Also, your doctor will evaluate your results based on your health and other factors. This means that a value that falls outside the normal values listed here may still be normal for you or your lab.

Viral load results are reported as the number of HIV copies in a milliliter (copies/mL) of blood. Each virus is called a "copy," because HIV reproduces by making copies of itself (replicating).

Viral load
Normal:

HIV is not detected in the blood.

Abnormal:

HIV is detected in the blood. Your doctor will compare your current measurement with previous values.

If your viral load increases, it means the infection is getting worse. If the viral load drops, it means that the infection is being suppressed.

What Affects the Test

Reasons you may not be able to have the test or why the results may not be helpful include:

  • Having another infection, such as pneumonia.
  • Having gotten a recent vaccine, such as a flu vaccine.

What To Think About

  • The results from the different methods (RT-PCR, bDNA, NASBA) to measure viral load are not interchangeable. This makes it important to use the same method of measuring each time.
  • An undetectable viral load result does not mean that you no longer have HIV in your blood. It simply means that the amount of HIV in the blood was too low for the test to detect. HIV still can be passed to another person even when the viral load cannot be detected.
  • The viral load test is not used routinely to diagnose HIV. The HIV antibody test is used for this purpose. To learn more, see the topic Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Test.
  • The viral load test is more accurate than a CD4+ count to evaluate the activity of HIV. The CD4+ count measures how well your immune system is working and may be used to determine when to start antiretroviral therapy. The viral load test is used to determine the response to antiretroviral therapy. No HIV should be detected in the blood of people whose treatment is successful. To learn more about the CD4+ count, see the topic CD4+ Count.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: October 22, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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