HIV is an infection caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This virus causes disease by attacking special cells in the immune system known as T-cells or CD4 cells.
CD4 cells are critical to the immune system’s ability to fight off infections including other viruses as well as bacteria. If you have HIV, your viral load and your CD4 cell count are two important numbers your doctor will use to decide what treatment you need.
If you are HIV positive, a lab test will show that you have the HIV virus in your body. HIV is not a live organism that can recreate more of its own cells. HIV reproduces by injecting its own genetic material, known as ribonucleic acid or RNA, into healthy CD4 cells.
The viral RNA takes over the cells, which prevents them from doing their job in the immune system. The virus then uses the CD4 cells’ ability to create new cells to replicate the HIV RNA which is sent out of the cells into the bloodstream where it can infect and take over more CD4 cells.
When someone is first diagnosed with HIV, the doctor will order an HIV viral load test. This initial test provides a baseline measurement of how much HIV virus is in a certain amount of blood. The test provides the number of copies of the HIV found in a milliliter of blood.
A low viral count is between 40 and 500 copies/mL. A high load count while HIV is being treated can be between 5,000 and 10,000 copies/mL. Many people have a viral count of a million or more copies when they are first diagnosed and before they begin treatment.
The purpose of testing the viral load is to find out how much active HIV is in the blood. The higher the viral load count, the more HIV is active in the blood. A low number is a good number for the viral load. If you are taking HIV medications and your viral load is high, you may need to change to a different treatment to keep the HIV from replicating and spreading.
Your doctor will probably want to test your viral load every 2 to 8 weeks as you begin treatment. Once therapy is working, he may monitor your viral load every 3 to 4 months.