Can an HIV Test Detect the Virus Immediately After Exposure?

When exploring the subject of HIV, you’ll probably chance upon misinformation. Most of the concern and disinformation relating to HIV testing surrounds the issue of how soon after exposure to the virus, an HIV test can detect it. An HIV test cannot detect the virus immediately following exposure. Meanwhile, Healthy MD HIV testing can help you get the information you need to make the right decisions about your health.

Usually, there is a window period after infection where the virus may not be detectable. This is generally between two and eight weeks. How soon you find out about your status depends on:

  • The test you choose
  • Your biology
  • Viral load.

For instance, a NAT (details coming right up) test can detect the virus within two weeks of infection, while other tests like the ELISA might take up to three months. Let’s discuss a few types of tests to paint a clearer picture of the timeline. But first…

Seek Treatment 

If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, seek medical treatment first. Who knows, it could be the most critical decision you ever make. And if you do, your doctor may prescribe post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP)- a medical treatment that may stop the infection if taken within 72 hours (3 days) after a possible exposure.

But, PEP is not 100% effective and is meant for emergencies. Plus, it is not a substitute for safer sex practices. Talk to your doctor or an HIV counselor to see if PEP is right for you. Otherwise, you may consider the Nucleic Acid Test to detect the virus a few days after infection.

Nucleic Acid Test

A nucleic acid test (NAT) is a lab test designed to look for the genetic material of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The test can detect the presence of HIV in your blood soon after infection, as early as ten days. In short, NAT can identify early infections before antibodies develop.

Physicians can also use NAT to screen blood and organs for transplantation. Technicians usually perform the test on blood samples or tissue samples from the mouth or rectum. They first treat the sample with a chemical that breaks down cellular material.

This leaves the HIV genetic material behind, which can then be amplified using a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The amplified HIV genetic material is then detected using a method called hybridization. NAT can detect very low levels of HIV genetic material.

That said, it is expensive and requires specialized know-how and equipment. For these reasons, NAT is not routinely used in clinical settings.


Self-testing at home can be an option if you’re uncomfortable with going to a doctor or testing site. Home test kits are available online and at some pharmacies- you can check out Healthy MD for options.

These kits usually require a small blood sample, which is then sent to a laboratory for testing. Alternatively, you may opt for a test kit allowing you to swab your gums for oral fluid(saliva). Such a test lets you read the results in 20 to 40 minutes.

The main upside of home testing is that it can be done anonymously and in the privacy of your home. However, home test kits are not as accurate as tests done by a health care professional. You’ll also have to wait at least 90 days after exposure before taking a home test, as it takes time for the virus to show up in the blood.

No Test is Perfect

There is always a chance that the test you choose could give a false-negative result, which means you could have HIV, but the test says you don’t. False-negative results can occur if the test is done too soon after exposure or if your viral load is low. Besides, the result means you’ll need to be retested.

Conversely, a false-positive result implies you have HIV while you don’t. This can happen if you have another condition that causes your immune system to produce antibodies (such as autoimmune disease, pregnancy) or if you’ve been vaccinated for hepatitis B. A retest can help confirm the diagnosis if you have a positive result.

Doctors may use various tests to determine whether or not you have the virus. If your healthcare provider confirms an initial positive result by retesting you, they can recommend different treatments to keep the virus under control. These treatments can dramatically improve your quality of life and extend your lifespan. And even if the test comes back negative, it helps to get checked out by a doctor to be safe.

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