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HIV tests are used to detect the presence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), in serum, saliva, or urine. Such tests may detect antibodies, antigens, or RNA.
The window period is the time from infection until a test can detect any change. The average window period with HIV-1 antibody tests is 25 days for subtype B. Antigen testing cuts the window period to approximately 16 days and NAT (Nucleic Acid Testing) further reduces this period to 12 days.
Performance of medical tests is often described in terms of:
sensitivity: The percentage of the results that will be positive when HIV is present
specificity: The percentage of the results that will be negative when HIV is not present.
All diagnostic tests have limitations, and sometimes their use may produce erroneous or questionable results.
False positive: The test incorrectly indicates that HIV is present in a non-infected person.
False negative: The test incorrectly indicates that HIV is absent in an infected person.
Nonspecific reactions, hypergammaglobulinemia, or the presence of antibodies directed to other infectious agents that may be antigenically similar to HIV can produce false positive results. Autoimmune diseases, such as systemic lupus erythematosus, have also rarely caused false positive results. Most false negative results are due to the window period.
The enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), or enzyme immunoassay (EIA), was the first screening test commonly employed for HIV. It has a high sensitivity.
In an ELISA test, a person's serum is diluted 400-fold and applied to a plate to which HIV antigens have been attached. If antibodies to HIV are present in the serum, they may bind to these HIV antigens. The plate is then washed to remove all other components of the serum. A specially prepared "secondary antibody" — an antibody that binds to human antibodies — is then applied to the plate, followed by another wash. This secondary antibody is chemically linked in advance to an enzyme. Thus the plate will contain enzyme in proportion to the amount of secondary antibody bound to the plate. A substrate for the enzyme is applied, and catalysis by the enzyme leads to a change in color or fluorescence. ELISA results are reported as a number; the most controversial aspect of this test is determining the "cut-off" point between a positive and negative result.