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There are several types of tests for HIV. One of these is the HIV RNA test. Your doctor or healthcare professional may recommend the HIV RNA test to you if you need a test done quickly after a possible exposure.

Unlike other HIV tests, the HIV RNA test detects HIV‘s genetic material — not the antibodies your body makes in response to it. For this reason, it has a shorter window period than any other type of HIV test.

Since it’s expensive, the HIV RNA test isn’t routinely used for screening HIV. In this article, we’ll explain why it might be needed, how it’s done, and how it differs from other HIV tests.

You might use the HIV RNA test if you:

  • think you were recently exposed to HIV
  • have early symptoms of HIV
  • need to confirm an earlier diagnosis of HIV
  • need to eliminate the possibility of a false positive or false negative test, if earlier HIV tests produced conflicting results
  • need to monitor the effectiveness of HIV treatment, over time

Because the HIV RNA test detects HIV and not antibodies, it’s a valuable tool for detecting recent exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it gives accurate results from 10 to 33 days after a possible exposure occurs.

The HIV RNA test is a type of nucleic acid test (NAT). NATs are blood tests used to detect the genetic material of viruses and bacteria in your blood. They’re sometimes used to screen blood donations for HIV and other conditions, such as hepatitis B.

The HIV RNA test is also called the HIV viral load test, since it can identify the viral load, or how much genetic material from HIV is in your blood. This sets it apart from other HIV tests.

According to the CDC, there are two other types of HIV tests:

  • HIV antibody tests. These tests look for antibodies created by your body in response to HIV.
  • HIV antigen/antibody tests. These tests look for antibodies, but they also look for antibodies and an HIV protein (antigen) called p24.

Since the HIV RNA test is a blood test, there’s no special way to prepare for it. But some people find that being well hydrated before any type of blood test makes it easier for the technician to find a vein.

A technician will swab your arm with an antiseptic wipe or solution. Then, a blood sample will be drawn from a vein in your arm.

Based upon the lab used, it may take up to 10 days for you to get the results of your test.

The HIV RNA test detects HIV’s genetic material. It has the shortest window of any HIV test, and provides information about HIV status in as little as 10 days after exposure.

Other tests for HIV look for antibodies, or for antigens and antibodies.

Your doctor may recommend getting an HIV RNA test if you think you’ve been exposed to HIV, or if you have early symptoms of HIV. It may also be used to monitor your progress to treatment if you’re HIV positive.