The importance of an HIV test

November 12, 2012

The importance of an HIV test

Recommendations in 2006 that everyone should undergo an HIV test in addition to the usual tests for high cholesterol levels or blood pressure caused much discussion within the medical community.

The idea of everyone undergoing an HIV test seems to be a good idea in principle – however the practicalities of carrying out this kind of mass, widespread regular testing would seem to create an almost insurmountable obstacle. Other medical professionals voiced doubts about the necessity of testing those people not typically considered to be at risk of HIV infection. Carrying out an HIV test may be expensive and time consuming, not to mention unnecessary; it may also be deeply distressing for some patients, particularly the needle-phobic.

Oral testing

Recent developments in the field of HIV test methodology have seen the arrival of a rapid HIV test – which does not need to be sent away for processing – that appears to be equally successful when using blood, serum or oral fluids.

The oral test uses mucus from the cheeks or gums and is considered to be as accurate as a blood test – the rate of false positives being slightly higher than false negatives. In common with the blood test the oral HIV test looks for the presence of antibodies in the mucus, not the disease itself.


The presence of antibodies in bodily fluids is an indication that the immune system has tried, and failed, to fight the initial HIV infection. It is these antibodies that are detected during testing. The viral presence of HIV in the oral fluids of an infected individual is minimal – which is why it is not possible to catch HIV from kissing an infected person, or sharing drinking glasses and other tableware. However there are likely to be more than enough antibodies to facilitate a test result.

HIV test – how it works

Antibodies are produced by the immune system in response to the presence of disease specific antigens (or proteins). The antibodies bind themselves to the antigens in an effort to fight the disease. The oral test for HIV adds another protein to this binding process in order to test the antibody levels in any individual.

The test strip for an oral test for HIV contains an HIV antigen containing substance encased in plastic at one end of the strip. The patient will then swab his or her cheeks and gums, with the plain end of the strip, before the medical practitioner uses the enzyme solution which will react to any detected binding of antibodies and antigens. As the fluids move up the strip a color change will be seen if the enzyme is reacting to the presence of, this colour change may then cause a line to appear on the read out portion of the strip – this is not a definite positive, a second test should be taken before a definite positive diagnosis can be made. If no line appears then the result is considered to be negative.

This oral test takes around twenty minutes and is carried out in the doctor’s office or clinic. It is important to return for a follow-up test no more than six months after the initial suspected infection occurred.


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