What is an HIV PCR Test?

Q: My new girlfriend and I were discussing our sexual history a few days ago. She suggested that we both be tested for HIV before taking our relationship to the next level. She mentioned an HIV PCR test – what is this and how is it any different from a traditional HIV test?

G. Roberts

El Paso, TX

A: The HIV DNA PCR panel test is different from other forms of HIV testing because it is designed for early detection. The traditional antibody test typically returns reliable results at 6-12 weeks after a potential exposure, whereas the PCR test can provide conclusive results only 28 days after possible exposure. The PCR looks for the pro-viral DNA of HIV, which is rapidly replicated when an infection has occurred. Technically, this type of testing measures as little as 10 pro-viral DNA copies per mL of blood – in other words, it can detect the virus in the smallest amounts, making it the ideal choice for early detection.

It is wise for you and your partner to be screened for HIV before beginning a sexual relationship. However, do not forget to screen for other STDs. Many STDs do not have noticeable symptoms. Early detection is important, as well as seeking immediate treatment if necessary. Things to consider when testing include the last time you were tested, how many sexual partners you’ve had since your last test and how long it’s been since your last sexual partner. Make sure you discuss these things whenever you arrange for testing to make sure you are getting the tests you want/need.