HIV Transmission: When Does it Show up on a Blood Test?

Originally Published: November 15, 1996 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: November 27, 2007
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Dear Alice,

My question is about AIDS/HIV: I had a sexual affair that lasted two-and-a-half months, and, unfortunately, I was not using condoms. I happen to know nothing about my partner's previous sex life. I know that, for a test to show something, you must wait for six to nine months. I would like to know whether, provided that I am infected, I will experience any symptoms in this six to nine month period?

Is it possible to have the virus and not have any symptoms or indications all this time? Right now, I am a graduate student and I am experiencing anxiety, fatigue, sleepiness, weight loss (three to five pounds in the last two months). Are these related to the disease, or is it just in my mind?

Grateful to you,

Thank you in advance,
Wrongdoer

Dear Wrongdoer (Lessons Learned would be a nicer name),


It's understandable that you are experiencing anxiety about your health and HIV status following unprotected sex. It may ease your worries to know that an HIV infection should show up on a blood test within about three months. In fact, most people who get infected with HIV will test positive within 2 to 8 weeks after infection. However, if your test comes back negative and it has not yet been three months since the possible infection, experts recommend getting tested again in three months, since some people are slow to develop the HIV antibodies that show up on a test. 


Thinking about getting an HIV test can cause some people to have anxiety or to worry. While HIV is a serious disease, keep in mind that many treatments to help manage HIV are available and that early detection of HIV/AIDS can help keep your body healthy for longer. Whatever your test results, getting tested sooner rather than later will help you stay at your healthiest. Also, know that before and after you get tested counselors will be available to discuss any of your concerns and help guide you towards treatment options if you do test positive. If you aren't quite ready to get tested, you may find it helpful to speak with a counselor, religious leader, or trusted friend to sort out your feelings. Columbia students can visit Counseling and Psychological Services; call x4-2878 to make an appointment. All Columbia students can also get testing and counseling services from the Gay Health Advocacy Project (GHAP); check out their website for walk-in hours and more information.


If results from the initial HIV blood test or oral swab are positive, a Western Blot blood test is used to confirm. Another test, called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is a process that measures the amount of HIV in infected cells, known as the viral load. This test is rarely used in conjunction with standard HIV detection (as in your situation), but doctors may use it to track the amount of virus in persons infected with HIV. PCR is especially useful because it allows quick monitoring of the effects of drug treatments for HIV and AIDS and can help doctors determine if a drug regimen is working for a person infected with HIV.


As for your weight loss, fatigue, and sleepiness, they could easily be stress-induced (i.e., from angst about your health, the grind of graduate school) or symptoms of an unrelated medical condition. Since these symptoms seem to be troubling to you, it may be a good idea to visit your primary health care provider. Columbia students can make an appointment by calling x4-2284 or logging on to Open Communicator. Some people do experience primary HIV infection symptoms 2-4 weeks after infection, but again, these flu-like symptoms are easily misinterpreted and not a reliable indicator of HIV status. Symptoms related to AIDS can take years to manifest, so their absence or perceived presence is not a good indicator of having contracted HIV/AIDS. Getting tested after three months, and maybe again three months later, is the only way to know for sure whether you've contracted the virus. Here are a couple of agencies you can contact for more information or to speak with someone about your personal concerns:


GMHC AIDS Hotline

(212) 807-6655

 

National CDC HIV/STD Hotline

(800) 232-4636

 

Some food-for-thought about safer sex: one way to prevent some of these pre- and post-sex worries is to think and talk about HIV and safer sex before you become sexually intimate with someone. What will you do and what won't you do to protect yourself and your partner? What might you do more or less of? Having a strategy is one more way to ward off post-sex anxiety. To read more about safer sex strategies, check out the Go Ask Alice! Sexual Health archives. Best wishes,

Alice