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What is an HIV test?

An HIV test is a method of analysis of saliva, blood, plasma, or serum (or, rarely, urine) for the presence of the HIV virus (Nucleic Acid Amplification Tests), HIV antigens (antigen/antibody test), or HIV antibodies (antibody test) to determine whether the testee has been infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Based on their screening process, the three categories of HIV tests are:

  • NATs — available only in laboratories. They analyze blood drawn from the vein for the presence of the actual virus cells. These tests can either tell if a person has HIV or what the viral load is. While they can detect HIV sooner than other types of tests, NATs are very expensive and not typically used unless the person being tested recently had a high-risk exposure and shows early symptoms of HIV infection.

  • An antigen/antibody HIV test — the test typically available in laboratories, but some rapid self-tests also employ this method. This test screens blood for HIV antibodies, which are produced by the immune system for battling the infection, as well as for the antigens, which are the substances HIV produces that trigger antibody creation (specifically, the protein p24). A laboratory antigen/antibody HIV test is done with blood drawn from the vein, but there are also rapid antigen/antibody tests available that are done with a finger prick.

  • An HIV antibody test — it screens for HIV antibodies in the blood or saliva. Most rapid tests are antibody tests. Some of these tests analyze blood, which can be sampled from a finger prick or drawn from a vein, and others test the saliva. 

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