Detecting HIV: Why Seroconversion Time Is Important

Written by Ann Pietrangelo | Published on July 30, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on July 30, 2013

What Is Seroconversion?

Soon after the initial infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), your body’s self defense mechanisms kick into action. Your autoimmune system begins the process of developing antibodies to attack the invading virus. This process is called seroconversion.

During seroconversion, you may not have detectable levels of HIV antibodies in your blood. An HIV blood test during this time could result in a false negative.

Know the symptoms of HIV in men »

How Long Does Seroconversion Time Last?

We’re all different and our unique immune systems make it impossible to determine an exact time frame for seroconversion. You won’t get a positive HIV test until your body makes enough HIV antibodies to be detected.

Since the early days of the HIV epidemic, scientists have developed far more sensitive blood tests. It is now possible to identify HIV antibodies earlier than ever before. According to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, these days, most people test positive within a few weeks of exposure. For others, it may take a few months.

Are There Symptoms During Seroconversion?

During this time, some people have symptoms similar to the flu or other common viruses. These include swollen lymph nodes, headache, rash, and fever. Symptoms may last from a few days to a few weeks and range from mild to severe. Those who have mild symptoms may not seek medical attention.

Many people pass through the seroconversion stage symptom free and remain unaware of the infection.

Can HIV Be Transmitted During Seroconversion Time?

Yes! The time between exposure and the initial immune response is a period of “acute HIV infection.” Following the initial infection, the amount of HIV in your body is extremely high, and so is risk of transmission. That’s because your body has not yet manufactured the antibodies necessary to fight the virus, and you’re not yet receiving treatment.

Most people have no idea they’re infected at this stage, and may have even had a recent negative test. This lack of knowledge may lead an infected person to unknowingly transmit the virus.

If You Think You’ve Been Exposed to HIV

If you believe you’ve been exposed to HIV, get tested! If the initial test is negative, arrange a repeat test. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that 97 percent of people develop detectable antibodies within the first three months after exposure.

Ask your doctor where you can get tested. Your actions now can help prevent transmission of the virus to your partner. Until you get the all clear, avoid sexual contact or use a condom.

If You Test Positive for HIV

You don’t need to wait until you feel ill to begin treatment. Early detection means you can begin treatment sooner. Earlier and more advanced treatment is helping HIV-positive people live longer, healthier lives than ever before.

Your doctor will advise you on what medications may be right for you. Ask your doctor about safe sex practices. It’s important that you notify all those with whom you’ve had sexual contact, so they can be tested too.

The HIV Test

The best way to find out for sure is to have an HIV blood test performed by a medical professional. A sample of your blood will be analyzed in a laboratory setting. If no antibodies are detected, your test result is seronegative. The presence of HIV antibodies means you are seropositive.

Home test kits are available, but can give false results. Results should always be confirmed with a professionally administered test.

Don’t know where to go or who to ask? Visit HIVtest.cdc.gov for a list of HIV test locations near you.

Takeaways

If you suspect you’ve been exposed to HIV, don’t wait to act. Start taking precautions immediately to prevent transmission to others. Report any symptoms to your doctor and schedule an HIV blood test. Be sure to tell your doctor when you may have been exposed.

Keep in mind: if you receive a negative test result, the time frame matters. Consult your doctor about next steps for follow-up testing.

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