WHAT IS HIV?
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system, the body’s natural defense system. Without a strong immune system, the body has trouble fighting off disease. Both the virus and the infection it causes are called HIV.
White blood cells are an important part of the immune system. HIV infects and destroys certain white blood cells called CD4+ cells. If too many CD4+ cells are destroyed, the body can no longer defend itself against infection.
The last stage of HIV infection is AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). People with AIDS have a low number of CD4+ cells and get infections or cancers that rarely occur in healthy people. These can be deadly.
But having HIV doesn’t mean you have AIDS. Even without treatment, it takes a long time for HIV to progress to AIDS—usually 10 to 12 years.
When HIV is diagnosed before it becomes AIDS, medicines can slow or stop the damage to the immune system. If AIDS does develop, medicines can often help the immune system return to a healthier state.
With treatment, many people with HIV are able to live long and active lives.
There are two types of HIV:
- HIV-1, which causes almost all the cases of AIDS worldwide
- HIV-2, which causes an AIDS-like illness. HIV-2 infection is uncommon in North America.
What causes HIV?
HIV infection is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus. You can get HIV from contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluids.
- Most people get the virus by having unprotected sex with someone who has HIV.
- Another common way of getting it is by sharing drug needles with someone who is infected with HIV.
- The virus can also be passed from a mother to her baby during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding.
HIV doesn’t survive well outside the body. So it can’t be spread by casual contact like kissing or sharing drinking glasses with an infected person.
So it can’t be spread by casual contact like kissing or sharing drinking glasses with an infected person
What are the symptoms?
HIV may not cause symptoms early on. People who do have symptoms may mistake them for the flu or mono. Common early symptoms include:
- Sore throat.
- Muscle aches and joint pain.
- Swollen glands (swollen lymph nodes).
- Skin rash.
Symptoms may appear from a few days to several weeks after a person is first infected. The early symptoms usually go away within 2 to 3 weeks.
After the early symptoms go away, an infected person may not have symptoms again for many years. After a certain point, symptoms reappear and then remain. These symptoms usually include:
- Swollen lymph nodes.
- Extreme tiredness.
- Weight loss.
- Night sweats.
How is HIV diagnosed?
A doctor may suspect HIV if symptoms last and no other cause can be found.
If you have been exposed to HIV, your immune system will make antibodies to try to destroy the virus. Doctors use tests to find these antibodies in urine, saliva, or blood.
If a test on urine or saliva shows that you are infected with HIV, you will probably have a blood test to confirm the results.
Most doctors use two blood tests, called the ELISA and the Western blot. If the ELISA is positive (meaning that HIV antibodies are found), a Western blot or other test will be done to be sure.
HIV antibodies usually show up in the blood within 3 months but can take as long as 6 months. If you think you have been exposed to HIV but you test negative for it:
- Get tested again. Tests at 6, 12, and 24 weeks can be done to be sure you are not infected.
- Meanwhile, take steps to prevent the spread of the virus, in case you do have it.
You can get HIV testing in most doctors’ offices, public health clinics, hospitals, and Planned Parenthood clinics. You can also buy a home HIV test kit in a drugstore or by mail order. Make sure it’s one that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If a home test is positive, see a doctor to have the result confirmed and to find out what to do next.
Practice safer sex. This includes using a condom unless you are in a relationship with one partner who does not have HIV or other sex partners.
If you do have sex with someone who has HIV, it is important to practice safer sex and to be regularly tested for HIV.
Talk with your sex partner or partners about their sexual history as well as your own sexual history. Find out whether your partner has a history of behaviors that increase his or her risk for HIV.
You may be able to take a combination medicine (tenofovir plus emtricitabine) every day to help prevent infection with HIV. This medicine can lower the risk of getting HIV But the medicine is expensive, and you still need to practice safer sex to keep your risk low.
Alcohol and drugs
If you use alcohol or drugs, be very careful. Being under the influence can make you careless about practicing safer sex.
And never share intravenous (IV) needles, syringes, cookers, cotton, cocaine spoons, or eyedroppers with others if you use drugs.
If you already have HIV
If you are infected with HIV, you can greatly lower the risk of spreading the infection to your sex partner by starting treatment when your immune system is still healthy.
Experts recommend starting treatment as soon as you know you are infected.
Studies have shown that early treatment greatly lowers the risk of spreading HIV to an uninfected partner.
Your partner may also be able to take medicine to prevent getting infected. This is called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
Steps to prevent spreading HIV
If you are HIV-positive (infected with HIV) or have engaged in sex or needle-sharing with someone who could be infected with HIV, take precautions to prevent spreading the infection to others.
- Take antiretroviral medicines. Getting treated for HIV can help prevent the spread of HIV to people who are not infected.
- Tell your sex partner or partners about your behavior and whether you are HIV-positive.
- Follow safer sex practices, such as using condoms.
- Do not donate blood, plasma, semen, body organs, or body tissues.
- Do not share personal items, such as toothbrushes, razors, or sex toys, that may be contaminated with blood, semen, or vaginal fluids.
If you are pregnant
The risk of a woman spreading HIV to her baby can be greatly reduced if she:
- Is on medicine that reduces the amount of virus in her blood to undetectable levels during pregnancy.
- Continues treatment during pregnancy.
- Does not breastfeed her baby.
The baby should also receive treatment after it is born.