What Antibodies and Antigens Do During HIV Infection

An antibody, also known as an immunoglobin, is a Y-shaped protein secreted by certain types of white blood cells which have the ability to identify pathogens (infective agents) such as viruses and bacteria. The two tips of the "Y" are able to latch onto either the pathogen or infected cell at a unique target called the antigen (also known as the antibody generator).

3D ribbon conformation of the antibody IgG2
Tim Vickers / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In doing so, the antibody effectively marks the pathogen for neutralization, either by killing it or preventing it from entering a healthy cell, or by signalling other complementary proteins to surround and devour the invader in a process called phagocytosis (from the Ancient Greek word for "to devour" [phagein] and "cell" [kytos]).

Antibodies are produced by white blood cells called B-lymphocytes, or B-cells. During the prenatal (before birth) and neonatal (newborn) stages of life, antibodies are passed from the mother to the infant through a process called passive immunization. From there, the child will begin to independently produce antibodies, either in response to a specific antigen (adaptive immunity) or as part of the body's natural immune response (innate immunity).

Humans are capable of producing over 10 billion types of antibodies, each defending against a specific type of antigen. The antigen-binding site on the antibody called the paratope is located at the tips of the "Y" and locks onto a complementary site on the antigen called the epitope. The high variability of the paratope allows the immune system to recognize an equally wide variety of antigens.

HIV Antibodies and Antigens

When an HIV infection occurs, measurable HIV antibodies are produced in response to antigens within a week or two of exposure, depending on which test is used. The antibodies are generated in response to different viral antigens.

Once infected, the antibodies persist for life and provide the traditional target for HIV antibody tests (including commercially available in-home tests).

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Janeway C. Immunobiology (5th ed.). The Immune System in Health and Disease. New York : Garland Pub; 2001.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Types of HIV tests.

By James Myhre & Dennis Sifris, MD
Dennis Sifris, MD, is an HIV specialist and Medical Director of LifeSense Disease Management. James Myhre is an American journalist and HIV educator.