Even when you feel well, lab tests can help you monitor your HIV and its treatment. Your healthcare provider will recommend a regular testing schedule for viral load and CD4 count to help monitor your HIV.
A key goal of HIV treatment is to keep your viral load as low as possible for as long as possible. Viral load is a measure of the amount of HIV in a small sample of your blood.
Viral load test
A viral load test is a blood test used to measure the number of copies of HIV in a 1-milliliter (mL) sample of blood. One (1) mL is about 1/5 of a teaspoon. The viral load test is also known as a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
The results of a viral load test are used to:
- Determine how well your immune system is controlling your HIV
- Help you and your healthcare provider decide if the time is right for you to start HIV medications
- Monitor how well your HIV medicines are working
HIV viral load numbers
HIV viral load count can range from below 50 to as high as 1 million copies/mL. The results of the HIV viral load test are grouped by viral load level:
- Undetectable: Below 50 copies/mL, depending on the viral load test used
- Low to moderate: 400 to 100,000 copies/mL
- High: Above 100,000 copies/mL
A key goal of HIV treatment is to keep your viral load as low as possible for as long as possible. An undetectable HIV viral load does not mean that a person is cured. It means that the amount of HIV in a 1-mL sample of blood is lower than the test can detect.
“Normal ranges” and “normal values” for HIV viral load test results
There are no normal ranges or normal values for HIV viral load.
CD4 cells (T cells)
CD4 cells (also called T cells) are a type of white blood cell. They are an important part of your immune system. Your immune system is your body’s defense system.
A strong immune system with lots of CD4 cells helps keep your body healthy and strong. HIV treatment may help preserve your immune system. It may help increase your CD4 count to help you fight infection and disease.
When infection and disease attack your body, the cells of your immune system respond and fight back. The CD4 cells take the lead in fighting disease. They send signals to activate your body’s immune response when they detect intruders, like viruses or bacteria.
CD4 cells work to prevent infection and disease from harming your body.
Understanding your CD4 (T cell) count
Your CD4 cell count is the number of CD4 cells in a sample of blood. It is a key measure of the health of your immune system.
When HIV enters your bloodstream, it has 1 main goal—to attack and kill your CD4 cells. HIV attaches itself to receptors on the outside of the CD4 cell. HIV then uses the CD4 cell to make copies of itself, killing the CD4 cell. This process is repeated over and over, destroying your CD4 cells and weakening your immune system. The lower your CD4 count, the greater the damage HIV has done. The fewer CD4 cells your body has, the harder it is for your body to fight infection and disease, and the more likely you are to get sick
Your healthcare provider and you will use your CD4 count to monitor your health. Your CD4 count will help you and your healthcare provider decide when you should start HIV treatment.