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Also known as: Human T-cell Lymphotropic Virus; HTLV-I/II Antibodies; HTLV-I/II by PCR
Formal name: Human T-Lymphotropic Virus Types I/II Antibodies; Human T-cell Lymphotropic Virus Types I/II by PCR

At a Glance

Why Get Tested?

To detect a human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV) infection; to help diagnose the cause of adult T-cell leukemia or lymphoma or HTLV-associated myelopathy

When to Get Tested?

When you have signs or symptoms that suggest that you may have an HTLV-associated condition, especially when you have identified risk factors; rarely when you have donated blood and been told that you are positive for HTLV

Sample Required?

A blood sample drawn from a vein in your arm; rarely a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) collected by a doctor from the lower back using a procedure called a lumbar puncture or spinal tap

Test Preparation Needed?


The Test Sample

What is being tested?

Human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV) is associated with certain rare diseases of T lymphocytes (T-cells), a type of white blood cell that is an important part of the body's immune system. This test detects an HTLV infection in order to help identify the virus as the underlying cause of an individual's leukemia, lymphoma, or rare nervous system disorder.

Two types of HTLV are most commonly tested: HTLV-I and HTLV-II. It is estimated that 15-20 million people worldwide are infected with HTLV. There is a higher incidence of HTLV-I in areas near the equator, in the Caribbean, parts of Africa, southwestern Japan, and southeastern United States. A higher incidence of HTLV-II is found in Native American populations and in North American and European intravenous (IV) drug users.

An HTLV-I infection can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Both HTLV-I and HTLV-II infections can be sexually transmitted or spread through exposure to contaminated blood as occurs with sharing of needles during IV drug use, although the majority of drug use-related infections are linked to HTLV-II. Both types may be passed through a blood transfusion or an organ transplant, but infection due to these procedures is now rare in the United States because all donors are tested for HTLV-I/II.

Living in parts of the world where HTLV is more common (such as those listed above), having a sexual partner who came from one of these areas, having multiple sex partners, being an IV drug user, or having a history of blood transfusions are all factors that increase an individual's risk for HTLV infection.

Both HTLV-I and HTLV-II preferentially infect T-lymphocytes. Most people infected with HTLV-I or HTLV–II will have few to no symptoms but can pass the infection on to others. After the initial infection, the virus never completely goes away but remains in the body in an inactive (latent) form. A small percentage of those infected go on to develop one of several associated diseases, typically months to many years or even decades after their initial exposure, and may then become acutely or chronically ill.

HTLV-I is associated with:

  • Adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma (ATL), a type of white blood cell cancer that may progress rapidly or slowly and cause symptoms such as fatigue, fever, and enlarged lymph nodes
  • HTLV-I–associated myelopathy/tropical spastic paraparesis (HAM/TSP), a rare condition that can cause weakness in the lower limbs, muscle spasms, nerve pain, and urinary incontinence
  • In some cases, other conditions such as uveitis, HTLV-I–associated infective dermatitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjögren syndrome

HTLV-II is less clearly linked with specific diseases but may be associated with certain lung conditions, neurological disorders, and dermatitis.

The body responds to an HTLV-I or HTLV-II infection by producing antibodies. These antibodies can be detected in the blood during testing. The viruses may also be directly tested using molecular tests (polymerase chain reaction, PCR) that detect the genetic material of the viruses.

How is the sample collected for testing?

A blood sample is obtained by inserting a needle into a vein in the arm. Rarely, a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is collected by a doctor from the lower back using a procedure called a lumbar puncture or spinal tap.

NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.

Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.

Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?

No test preparation is needed.

The Test

Common Questions

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Article Sources

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NOTE: This article is based on research that utilizes the sources cited here as well as the collective experience of the Lab Tests Online Editorial Review Board. This article is periodically reviewed by the Editorial Board and may be updated as a result of the review. Any new sources cited will be added to the list and distinguished from the original sources used.

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