HIV-Positive and ‘Undetectable’: What does it mean?

Often we hear HIV being described as 'undetectable' and whilst its not a cure, here's what it means for both you and your partner.

Zero HIV Cases in this county

As the name suggests, an undetectable viral load occurs in people living with HIV when the virus exists in such small quantities that it can’t be detected by standard blood tests.

Lots of people living with HIV can achieve an undetectable viral load by being consistent with their antiretroviral treatment over a period of at least six months.

Evidence has shown that as long as you continue to have your viral load monitored by a health professional to confirm that you are undetectable, then there is zero risk of you transmitting HIV to others and your health will not be negatively affected by HIV.

Here we look at what it means to be undetectable if you are living with HIV, or if you are HIV-negative but are having sex with someone who is undetectable…

Despite the huge success of ART treatment and the unlikelihood that someone with an undetectable viral load will pass HIV to someone else, it is best to still remain very careful and mindful when engaging in sexual activity.

While the chance of transmitting the virus is minuscule, in theory, it is still possible. For example, if your partner’s viral load suddenly rises due to the interference of another medication which affects your partner's ability to absorb their ART medication, there’s a chance you could contract the virus.

It's important to be clear that being undetectable does not translate to being cured. While the viral load in the blood may be undetectable, the virus still exists in the body, including in fluids like semen and vaginal secretions. People with HIV can experience a 'blip' which means that their viral load can increase in response to a cold, vaccination, and other external circumstances which are often unexpected.

If you and your partner are relying on an undetectable viral load to protect against transmitting HIV, talk to your doctor about how frequently you both should be tested. The average recommendation is between two to four times a year.

If you and your partner are having sex without condom, bear in mind that you aren’t protected against either an unwanted pregnancy or other sexually transmitted infections so make sure the both of you get tested regularly and are using necessary precautions like contraception.

In summary, though it seems really, really difficult to get HIV from someone who's undetectable, one still needs to be responsible about their treatment and get regular viral load tests.

HIV treatment is the most effective prevention strategy we have, use it properly and there's no reason why you should not live a full and happy life.

Key Terms

  • HIV. 
  • Viral load. 
  • Antiretroviral therapy (ART). 
  • Undetectable viral load. 

  • PrEP. 

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