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The Window Period
      #98740 - 05/14/04 03:58 AM

The "Window" Period Just After Infection

One major drawback of antibody tests is the "window" period: the time it takes the body to produce antibodies after infection has begun. The standard tests for HIV do not detect the virus itself, but the antibodies that the body produces in response. During the period before the antibodies are produced, a person can be infected with HIV and can infect others, but still test negative on the HIV antibody test.

For the first tests licensed, this window period ranged from six to 12 weeks, but improved technology has allowed the detection of lower levels of antibodies, making it possible to identify them earlier. "Currently used tests can detect HIV infection between three and five weeks in most individuals," Constantine says. "This is true of just about all of the ELISAs and the rapid tests [discussed further below]. Some tests are a little more consistent in detecting at the three week period, but in general they are all equivalent." To some degree, he explains, "it also depends on the individual (who may not produce antibodies as fast as another)."

When Should I Get Tested?

If you become infected with HIV, it usually takes between three weeks and two months for your immune system to produce antibodies to HIV. If you think you were exposed to HIV, you should wait for two months before being tested. You can also test right away and then again after two or three months. During this "window period" an antibody test will give a negative result, but you can transmit the virus to others if you are infected.

HIV testing generally looks for HIV antibodies in the blood, or saliva or urine. The immune system produces these antibodies to fight HIV. It usually takes two to three months for them to show up.

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