Most HIV-positive people can live many years with HIV before they need to take medications to control it. However, every person who tests HIV positive should immediately have two additional tests: a CD4 count and a viral load test. These tests are the critical measuring tools you and your health care provider will use to see what the virus is doing in (and to) your body.
The CD4 Count Test
This test, also known as a "T-cell count test," gives an indication of the number of CD4 cells in your bloodstream. The more CD4 cells you have, the stronger your immune system is.
After living with HIV for a while (if you don't take medications), the number of CD4 cells you have will usually fall. This is a sign that your immune system is being weakened.
A normal CD4 count for someone without HIV is usually between 500 and 1,600. Experts generally agree that when your CD4 count goes below 350, you're at a high risk for developing potentially dangerous illnesses, so you should begin taking HIV medications before your CD4 count hits 350.
CD4 Count Explained
|Healthy||500 - 1,660|
|Borderline Low||350 - 500|
|Low||200 - 350|
|Extremely Dangerous||0 - 200|
The Viral Load Test
Viral load tests provide an estimate of how much HIV is circulating in your blood. Generally speaking, your viral load is not considered as critical as your CD4 count in determining the health of your immune system. However, once you begin HIV treatment, it is a good measure of how well your HIV medications are working.
"You really don't have to die from HIV today. You can live with it. I certainly wouldn't say, 'Well, la, la, la, all you have to do is pop a few pills every day and you can go about your merry way,' because that isn't the truth. There are things that are going to change your life, that you're going to have to do differently."
-- Pam Yelsky, diagnosed in 1992
A viral load test measures the amount of HIV in a small amount (milliliter or mL) of your blood. Current viral load tests can detect as few as 50 copies of HIV per milliliter of blood. When your viral load test indicates that you have fewer than 50 copies/mL of HIV, your health care provider will tell you that your viral load is "below the limit of detection," or "undetectable."
This does not mean that you no longer have HIV in your body. Even someone who has an "undetectable" viral load can transmit HIV. However, an "undetectable" viral load means that your medications are doing an excellent job of keeping HIV in check.
Besides a CD4 count and viral load test, your HIV specialist will look at your overall health with a general blood count test. You may also be given an HIV drug resistance test. A resistance test will tell you if your HIV has already become resistant to any HIV medications.
How could this happen? The person you got HIV from may have been on HIV treatment and his or her virus may have become resistant to one or more HIV medications. Transmitted along with HIV was their resistance to certain drugs. So before you take treatment, you'll want to be sure your HIV is not resistant to any drugs.
Dealing With HIV and Other Illnesses?
Be sure to stay on top of HIV as well as any other infections or illnesses. If you are infected, for example, with HIV and hepatitis B or C, your physician may refer you to a liver specialist who also specializes in HIV. If you are seeing other health care providers, besides your HIV specialist, be sure that they are all in contact.
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