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ELISA/Western blot tests for HIV

Definition

HIV ELISA/Western blot is a set of blood tests used to diagnose chronic infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Alternative Names

HIV testing

How the Test is Performed

A blood sample is drawn from a vein.

How to Prepare for the Test

No preparation is necessary.

How the Test Will Feel

When the needle is inserted to draw blood, some people feel moderate pain, while others feel only a prick or stinging sensation. Afterward, there may be some throbbing.

Why the Test is Performed

Testing (screening) for HIV infection is done for many reasons, including for:

  • Persons who want to be tested
  • Persons in high-risk groups (men who have sex with men, injection drug users and their sexual partners, and commercial sex workers)
  • Persons with certain conditions and infections (such as Kaposi's sarcoma or Pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia)
  • Pregnant women, to help prevent them from passing the virus to the baby
  • When a patient has an unusual infection

Normal Results

A negative test result is normal. But persons with early HIV infection (acute HIV infection or primary HIV infection) often have a negative test result.

What Abnormal Results Mean

A positive result on the ELISA screening test does not mean that the person has HIV infection. Certain conditions may lead to a false positive result, such as Lyme disease, syphilis, and lupus.

A positive ELISA test is always followed by a Western blot test. A positive Western blot confirms an HIV infection. A negative Western blot test means the ELISA test was a false positive test. The Western blot test can also be unclear, in which case more testing is done.

Negative tests do not rule out HIV infection. There is a period of time, called the window period, between HIV infection and the appearance of anti-HIV antibodies. During this period, antibodies usually cannot be measured.

If a person might have acute or primary HIV infection and is in the window period, a negative HIV ELISA and Western blot will not rule out HIV infection. More tests for HIV are needed.

Risks

Veins and arteries vary in size from one patient to another, and from one side of the body to the other. Obtaining a blood sample from some people may be more difficult than from others.

Other risks associated with having blood drawn are slight, but may include:

  • Excessive bleeding
  • Fainting or feeling light-headed
  • Hematoma (blood accumulating under the skin)
  • Infection (a slight risk any time the skin is broken)

Considerations

People who are at high risk (men who have sex with men, injection drug users and their sexual partners, commercial sex workers) should be regularly tested for HIV.

If the health care provider suspects early acute HIV infection, other tests (such as HIV viral load) will be needed to confirm this diagnosis, because the HIV ELISA/Western blot test may be negative during this window period.

References

Dewar R, Goldstein D, Maldarelli F. Diagnosis of human immunodeficiency virus infection. In: Mandell GL, Bennett GE, Dolin R, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill-Livingstone; 2009:chap 119.

Warner EA, Herold AH. Interpreting laboratory tests. In: Rakel RE, Rakel DP, eds. Textbook of family medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 15


Review Date: 5/19/2013
Reviewed By: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial Team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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