Testing for HIV and other STDs

Testing for HIV/AIDSInfection by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) causes the destruction of certain blood cells that play a vital role in the body's defence system against diseases. While some people with HIV infection develop the disease called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), others may not show any symptoms; however, the body continues to be affected by the virus and therefore, it is important to treat this infection. Besides HIV infection, certain other Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea may affect persons who are sexually active, but not manifest through any symptoms. Testing for HIV and other STDs is therefore recommended as a part of preventive healthcare.

Who needs to get tested?

Some specific behaviour put a person at greater risk of contracting HIV and other STDs. In general, if you answer yes to any of these following questions, you must undergo this testing.

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  • Have you had unprotected sex (vaginal, anal or oral) with a partner who has anonymous or multiple partners?
  • Are you in a sexual relationship that is not mutually monogamous?
  • Have you shared injection equipment such as syringes and needles with others who inject steroids or drugs?
  • Have you had unprotected sex with a person who indulges in the type of behaviour outlined above?
  • Are you planning on becoming pregnant in the near future and wish to give birth to a healthy child?

Types of HIV tests

The most common test for HIV is an antibody test that detects and measures the amount of antibodies produced by your body against the infecting virus. Considering that it takes some time for your body's immune system to manufacture antibodies at a level that is detectable, this test can give relevant results only after 2 to 8 weeks of exposure to the virus. Of course, the process takes longer in some people and therefore, there is a chance of a false negative result; if the doctor suspects this to be the case, you may be advised to undergo a repeat test about three months following the exposure to the virus.

Read more about causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of hiv/aids.

Another test for HIV is the p24 antigen test that detects presence of a viral protein called p24 which is a distinct part present in the structure of the virus. Persons who are newly infected with the virus show high levels of p24 antigen and an assessment of its levels can help to diagnose HIV infection. However, this antigen is destroyed after a few days because the body develops antibodies to it; this means the p24 test is not reliable to detect an infection that has progressed beyond the early stage.

The RNA test that is used in some parts of the world such as the United States is able to directly detect the HIV organism within 11 days of exposure; these tests are much more expensive than the antibody tests and are not as commonly used in India.

An important point to remember is that the HIV is an organism that is mainly of two types: HIV-1 and HIV-2; the former is encountered in most of the world with the latter being most common to the western parts of Africa. Because these two forms differ significantly in their characteristics, there are separate tests for detecting each type although the more recent tests are capable of detecting both forms with equal sensitivity. If you have resided even temporarily in a country known for cases of HIV-2 or have a sexual partner who has resided in such a country, it is vital to provide this information to the doctor you consult.

How the tests are done

Most tests used to detect HIV and other STDs use blood, saliva or urine samples. The first step is a physical examination of the genital region and the anus to find out if there is a sore, rash, wart or discharge that can be indicative of an infection. Blood samples and urine samples are collected in specially prepared containers; saliva and discharge samples for microscopic observation may be collected by using a sterile swab.

  • HIV/AIDS is generally tested using a blood test and occasionally, an oral swab test to test the cells within the mouth.
  • Testing for Chlamydia includes a physical exam, testing of cells from the penis, anus, cervix and vagina as well as the discharge obtained from these areas.
  • The STD called bacterial vaginosis that affects women is tested by carrying out a physical examination of the pelvis as well as a test on the discharge obtained from the vagina.
  • Gonorrhoea is tested by drawing cell samples from the penis, cervix and anus or the throat; discharge from the vagina, anus and urethra can also help to detect this STD.
  • The STD syphilis can be identified by drawing a blood sample; in patients who have sores, the fluid from the sore may be tested to confirm presence of the disease.

Where to get a test

In some countries, home testing kits for HIV are available; however, there is no guarantee of their reliability and therefore, these are best avoided. Visit a doctor's clinic, hospital or sexual health clinic for HIV and other STD testing. In India, there are Integrated Counselling and Testing Centres (ICTC) that provide community-level testing for HIV.

HIV infections and sexually transmitted diseases have the potential to cause medical complications that not just interfere with the quality of your life, but also pose a threat to your well-being. But if you get tested at the earliest, it is possible to detect the specific problem and undergo the right treatment that ensures you regain your healthy status.

For more articles on hiv/aids, visit our hiv/aids section. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest updates! For daily free health tips, sign up for our newsletter. And to join discussions on health topics of your choice, visit our forum.

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