A small guide. Here's what you need to know about HIV (AIDS)
What is HIV?
- HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS.
- There is currently no effective cure. Once people get HIV, they have it for life.
- But with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled. People with HIV who get effective HIV TREATMENT can live long, healthy lives and protect their partners
Where did HIV come from?
HIV infection in humans came from a type of chimpanzee in Central Africa.
The chimpanzee version of the virus was probably passed to humans when humans hunted these chimpanzees for meat and came in contact with their infected blood.
Anyone can contract HIV. The virus is transmitted in bodily fluids that include:
- vaginal and rectal fluids
- breast milk
Some of the ways HIV is transferred from person to person include:
- through vaginal or anal sex — the most common route of transmission
- by sharing needles, syringes, and other items for injection drug use
- by sharing tattoo equipment without sterilizing it between uses
- during pregnancy, labor, or delivery from a pregnant person to their baby
- during breastfeeding
- through “premastication,” or chewing a baby’s food before feeding it to them
- through exposure to the blood, semen, vaginal and rectal fluids, and breast milk of someone living with HIV, such as through a needle stick
The virus can also be transmitted through a blood transfusion or organ and tissue transplant. However, rigorous testing for HIV among blood, organ, and tissue donors ensures that this is very rare in the United States.
It’s theoretically possible, but considered extremely rare, for HIV to be transmitted through:
- oral sex (only if there are bleeding gums or open sores in the person’s mouth)
- being bitten by a person with HIV (only if the saliva is bloody or there are open sores in the person’s mouth)
- contact between broken skin, wounds, or mucous membranes and the blood of someone living with HIV
HIV does NOT transfer through:
- skin-to-skin contact
- hugging, shaking hands, or kissing
- air or water
- sharing food or drinks, including drinking fountains
- saliva, tears, or sweat (unless mixed with the blood of a person with HIV)
- sharing a toilet, towels, or bedding
- mosquitoes or other insects
It’s important to note that if a person living with HIV is being treated and has a persistently undetectable viral load, it’s virtually impossible to transmit the virus to another person.
The first few weeks after someone contracts HIV is called the acute infection stage.
During this time, the virus reproduces rapidly. The person’s immune system responds by producing HIV antibodies, which are proteins that take measures to respond against infection.
During this stage, some people have no symptoms at first. However, many people experience symptoms in the first month or so after contracting the virus, but they often don’t realize HIV causes those symptoms.
This is because symptoms of the acute stage can be very similar to those of the flu or other seasonal viruses, such as:
- they may be mild to severe
- they may come and go
- they may last anywhere from a few days to several weeks
Early symptoms of HIV can include:
- swollen lymph nodes
- general aches and pains
- skin rash
- sore throat
- upset stomach
Because these symptoms are similar to common illnesses like the flu, the person who has them might not think they need to see a healthcare provider.
And even if they do, their healthcare provider might suspect the flu or mononucleosis and might not even consider HIV.
Whether a person has symptoms or not, during this period their viral load is very high. The viral load is the amount of HIV found in the bloodstream.
A high viral load means that HIV can be easily transmitted to someone else during this time.
Initial HIV symptoms usually resolve within a few months as the person enters the chronic, or clinical latency, stage of HIV. This stage can last many years or even decades with treatment.
HIV symptoms can vary from person to person.
After the first month or so, HIV enters the clinical latency stage. This stage can last from a few years to a few decades.
Some people don’t have any symptoms during this time, while others may have minimal or nonspecific symptoms. A nonspecific symptom is a symptom that doesn’t pertain to one specific disease or condition.
These nonspecific symptoms may include:
- headaches and other aches and pains
- swollen lymph nodes
- recurrent fevers
- night sweats
- weight loss
- skin rashes
- recurrent oral or vaginal yeast infections
As with the early stage, HIV is still transferable during this time even without symptoms and can be transmitted to another person.
However, a person won’t know they have HIV unless they get tested. If someone has these symptoms and thinks they may have been exposed to HIV, it’s important that they get tested.
HIV symptoms at this stage may come and go, or they may progress rapidly. This progression can be slowed substantially with treatment.
With the consistent use of this antiretroviral therapy, chronic HIV can last for decades and will likely not develop into AIDS, if treatment was started early enough.
Symptoms of HIV vary from person to person, but they’re similar in men and women. These symptoms can come and go or get progressively worse.
If a person has been exposed to HIV, they may also have been exposed to other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). These include:
Men, and those with a penis, may be more likely than women to notice symptoms of STIs such as sores on their genitals. However, men typically don’t seek medical care as often as women.
Learn more about HIV symptoms in men.
For the most part, symptoms of HIV are similar in men and women. However, symptoms they experience overall may differ based on the different risks men and women face if they have HIV.
Both men and women with HIV are at increased risk for STIs. However, women, and those with a vagina, may be less likely than men to notice small spots or other changes to their genitals.
In addition, women with HIV are at increased risk for:
- recurrent vaginal yeast infections
- other vaginal infections, including bacterial vaginosis
- pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- menstrual cycle changes
- human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause genital warts and lead to cervical cancer
While not related to HIV symptoms, another risk for women with HIV is that the virus can be transmitted to a baby during pregnancy. However, antiretroviral therapy is considered safe during pregnancy.
Women who are treated with antiretroviral therapy are at very low risk for transmitting HIV to their baby during pregnancy and delivery. Breastfeeding is also affected in women with HIV. The virus can be transferred to a baby through breast milk.
In the United States and other settings where formula is accessible and safe, it’s recommended that women with HIV not breastfeed their babies. For these women, use of formula is encouraged.
Options besides formula include pasteurized banked human milk.
For women who may have been exposed to HIV, it’s important to know what symptoms to look for.
AIDS refers to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. With this condition, the immune system is weakened due to HIV that’s typically gone untreated for many years.
If HIV is found and treated early with antiretroviral therapy, a person will usually not develop AIDS.
People with HIV may develop AIDS if their HIV is not diagnosed until late or if they know they have HIV but don’t consistently take their antiretroviral therapy.
They may also develop AIDS if they have a type of HIV that’s resistant to (doesn’t respond to) the antiretroviral treatment.
Without proper and consistent treatment, people living with HIV can develop AIDS sooner. By that time, the immune system is quite damaged and has a harder time generating a response to infection and disease.
With the use of antiretroviral therapy, a person can maintain a chronic HIV diagnosis without developing AIDS for decades.
Symptoms of AIDS can include:
- recurrent fever
- chronic swollen lymph glands, especially of the armpits, neck, and groin
- chronic fatigue
- night sweats
- dark splotches under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
- sores, spots, or lesions of the mouth and tongue, genitals, or anus
- bumps, lesions, or rashes of the skin
- recurrent or chronic diarrhea
- rapid weight loss
- neurologic problems such as trouble concentrating, memory loss, and confusion
- anxiety and depression
Antiretroviral therapy controls the virus and usually prevents progression to AIDS. Other infections and complications of AIDS can also be treated. That treatment must be tailored to the individual needs of the person.
Treatment should begin as soon as possible after a diagnosis of HIV, regardless of viral load.
The main treatment for HIV is antiretroviral therapy, a combination of daily medications that stop the virus from reproducing. This helps protect CD4 cells, keeping the immune system strong enough to take measures against disease.
Antiretroviral therapy helps keep HIV from progressing to AIDS. It also helps reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others.
When treatment is effective, the viral load will be “undetectable.” The person still has HIV, but the virus is not visible in test results.
However, the virus is still in the body. And if that person stops taking antiretroviral therapy, the viral load will increase again, and the HIV can again start attacking CD4 cells.
If you Like Our Blog Share it with Everyone You Know