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What is a Viral Load test?

A viral load test is generally done to measures the amount of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in blood. HIV targets and destroys specific cells of the immune system, namely CD4 cells, The latter are responsible for fighting against disease-causing germs, such as bacteria and viruses. Thus, a drop in CD4 count makes one prone to infections

A viral load test is also adviced to people with hepatitis B, hepatitis C and other infections for monitoring the effectiveness of treatment provided for these conditions and for measuring the amount of these disease-causing viruses in the bloodstream.

A CD4 test might be ordered along with this test to measure immune system strength.

  1. Why is a Viral Load test performed?
  2. How do you prepare for a Viral Load test?
  3. How is a Viral Load test performed?
  4. What do Viral Load test results mean?

A viral load test is typically ordered to:

  • Diagnose HIV in people who are suspected of an infection
  • Check if the medicines provided for HIV infection are effective
  • Monitor the changes that occur during the infection

This test might also be ordered for:

  • Pregnant women, as it is essential to check that the mother does not have HIV infection to prevent it from passing to the baby
  • People who share drug needles, or inject themselves with drugs
  • People who have unprotected sex
  • Men who have sex with men
  • People who have multiple sex partners

In people who are already diagnosed with HIV, the test is ordered for the first time within 2 to 8 weeks after diagnosis and later at the four to six month interval. Results of a viral load test help doctors prescribe suitable medications to improve overall health and reduce viral load.

Viral load test does not require any special preparation. However, if you are getting tested to confirm the presence of an HIV infection, it is advisable that you talk to a counsellor before taking the test to understand the results better.

It is a simple test in which a blood sample is collected from a blood vessel in the arm

  • The technician collecting the blood sample will tie a band around your upper arm and ask you to make a fist
  • After observing a vein in the arm, he/she will insert a sterile needle into the vein and draw the sample
  • Once enough blood is collected, a bandage or gauze will be applied over the needle insertion site. It helps discontinue the bleeding and prevent any bruising or swelling

The whole process takes about 3 minutes.

Some minor risks associated with this test are bruising, bleeding and slight pain at the injection site. Some people feel dizzy or light-headed and soreness at the site of blood withdrawal after blood collection. Though the symptoms typically fade in a few minutes.

Normal results:

A normal test result indicates the absence of HIV in the blood, which means that you don’t have HIV infection.

Abnormal results:

A low viral load indicates that HIV in the body is not much active. This might also indicate the effectiveness of the treatment provided.

A high viral load is noted when active HIV is present in the body. It might indicate the ineffectiveness of the treatment provided. The higher the viral load, the higher is the risk of getting diagnosed with diseases that might weaken the immune system, like acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

It is essential that the method used to perform the test every time is the same as different methods might provide different results that are not interchangeable.

Results of a viral load test should be discussed with the doctor to understand them better and correctly.

Disclaimer: All results must be clinically correlated with the patient’s complaints to make a complete and accurate diagnosis. The above information is provided from a purely educational point of view and is in no way a substitute for medical advice by a qualified doctor.

 

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References

  1. National Institutes of Health; [Internet]. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; Viral Load Test.
  2. Aids info. Clinical Guidelines. National Institutes of Health; [Internet]. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
  3. Center for Disease Control and Prevention [internet], Atlanta (GA): US Department of Health and Human Services; About HIV/AIDS.
  4. U W Health. Health Information. University of Wisconsin; Madison, Wisconsin, U.S. [internet]
  5. Johns Hopkins Medicine [Internet]. The Johns Hopkins University, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Johns Hopkins Health System; HIV and AIDS
  6. U W Health. HIV Viral Load Measurement. University of Wisconsin; Madison, Wisconsin, U.S. [internet]
  7. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. What is HIV? Washington DC. [internet]
  8. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute [Internet]: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Blood Tests
  9. Aids info. Guidelines for the Use of Antiretroviral Agents in Adults and Adolescents with HIV. National Institutes of Health; [Internet]. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
  10. Center for Disease Control and Prevention [internet], Atlanta (GA): US Department of Health and Human Services; Laboratory testing for the diagnosis of HIV infection : updated recommendations
  11. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Viral load - Hepatitis C for Patients Washington DC. [internet]
  12. University of Rochester Medical Center Rochester, NY. [Internet] HIV Viral Load