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How can my doctor tell that I have acute HIV infection?

When HIV enters your body, it moves inside white blood cells called "CD4 lymphocytes." HIV takes over the CD4 cells and makes billions of copies of itself each day. The new viruses spread through your body.

Your body tries to defend itself against HIV by making the following:

  1. Antibodies (these hook on to the virus and keep it from making new virus).
  2. Special cells called macrophages and natural killer T-cells. These cells help you to get rid of some of the new virus. If antibodies against HIV show up in your blood, you know your body is trying to protect you from the HIV infection you have picked up. However, it's usually several months before your body makes enough antibodies to measure.

So at the time you have acute HIV syndrome, you probably won't have enough HIV antibodies in your blood to measure, and this test can't give you a diagnosis.

However, when you have acute HIV syndrome, you do have a high level of HIV RNA in your blood. A test can measure the amount of HIV RNA in your blood. (RNA is the short name for "ribonucleic acid." RNA is made when the virus is active.) This test tells your doctor that you're feeling sick because you have acute HIV syndrome.