October 28th, 2010 | Published in HIV Fast Facts
Although improvements in medical science are continuing to bring hope to those infected with HIV, one thing’s for sure: Those at risk for contracting the disease should make it their business to get tested as soon as possible. When most people think about HIV testing, they tend to assume that it’s a simple matter of producing a blood sample and waiting for results. Little do some realize that there’s one factor that can throw off HIV test results: the window period.
The term “window period” refers to the time between the date of infection and when an HIV test can accurately detect the presence of the disease. During the HIV window period, it’s possible for an infected individual to transmit the disease to his or her sexual partner(s). At the same time, the disease itself may not actually show up on a properly administered test during the window period—which is a pretty scary notion for those at risk.
What does the HIV window period look like?
Most HIV tests work by measuring the antibodies generated by the body against HIV. (Though another type of HIV test--the RNA test--does exist, this option is more costly and is therefore not as common.) The amount of time that it takes for the immune system to produce enough antibodies to show up on an HIV test can vary significantly from person to person. While most people will develop antibodies within two to eight weeks following infection, for others, the HIV window period can be much longer. In fact, in rare cases, it can take up to six months for a person to develop enough antibodies to produce an accurate HIV test result.
This is why it’s so important to understand how the HIV window period works. Although it is possible for a person to receive a reliable test result two months after the date of infection, most medical professionals agree that if an initial HIV test is performed within the first three months of exposure, then repeat testing is necessary around the six month-mark in the event of a negative result.
In this case, does it make sense for all people to simply wait six months before undergoing HIV testing? According to most medical professionals, no. In some instances, HIV can present itself in as little as three months; and if this is the case, then any affected individuals will want to seek out treatment as soon as possible. In fact, when it comes to HIV, the sooner treatment is administered, the better one’s long-term prognosis will ultimately be. So while it’s important to be aware of the fact that the HIV window period does exist, those at risk for contracting the disease should in no way use it as an excuse to postpone testing.