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Key Facts About AIDS and HIV: Diagnosis, Prevention, and Treatment

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks the immune system and weakens a person’s defense against infections, diseases, and cancer. The most advanced stage of this infection is AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. An estimated 37.9 million people globally are living with HIV, meaning that this virus is a huge global health problem. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about HIV/AIDS.

HIV attacks cells in the immune system called T-helper cells, or CD4 cells. Each time any single virus attacks a CD4 cell, it makes a copy of itself, gradually weakening the immune system. If HIV isn’t treated with antiretroviral treatment, it will take about 10–15 years for the virus to damage the immune system so completely that it can no longer defend the body.  

AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV. It is also called advanced HIV infection or late-stage HIV. It is defined by a set of symptoms that are caused by the HIV virus when the person’s immune system is no longer able to fight off infection and some other diseases. Most people in the U.S. who have HIV do not develop AIDS because of available medication that stops the progression of the disease. 

HIV is transmitted through the exchange of certain bodily fluids from a person with HIV. The bodily fluids that can transmit HIV include: 

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Pre-seminal fluid
  • Vaginal fluids
  • Breast milk 

HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted through saliva, sweat, tears, or personal contact. 

Behaviors that can put a person at risk of contracting HIV include: 

  • Having unprotected anal or vaginal sex
  • Having another sexually transmitted infection, such as syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, or bacterial vaginosis
  • Sharing needles, syringes, and other injecting equipment and drug solutions when injecting drugs
  • Receiving unsafe injections, blood transfusions, tissue transplantation, or medical procedures that involve cutting or piercing
  • Experiencing accidental needle stick injuries 
  • Mother-to-child transmission through pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding

The symptoms of HIV/AIDS can vary greatly from person to person. The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. Since the virus destroys the immune system slowly, it is best to start taking medication as soon as one tests positive to stop the disease from progressing.

There are three stages of HIV: 

About 2–4 weeks after contracting HIV, a person may experience flu-like symptoms that can last for a few weeks. These symptoms include: 

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches and joint pain
  • Sore throat and painful mouth sores
  • Swollen glands, mainly on the neck

In the acute phase of infection, a person is highly contagious because there are large amounts of the virus in their blood. At this point, the person is probably unaware that they are infected. They may not even feel sick at all. In order to know whether someone has acute HIV infection, an antigen/antibody test or a nucleic acid (NAT) test is necessary. If you think you have been exposed to HIV, seek medical care and request a test for diagnosis of acute infection.

In this stage, sometimes called asymptomatic HIV infection or chronic HIV infection, the virus multiplies at very low levels. People in this phase usually do not have any symptoms or get sick during this time. Some people who are not on medication to treat HIV can stay in this phase for 10–15 years. Others may progress through this stage more quickly. 

During this stage, it is still possible to transmit HIV to others. However, people who are taking HIV medication daily and have an undetectable viral load have a very small risk of transmitting HIV to their HIV-negative sexual partners.

Some people who are not on medication to treat HIV can stay in clinical latency phase for 10–15 years.

The end of this phase is marked by an increase in viral load and a decrease in CD4 cell count. As virus levels increase, the person moves into stage 3. 

AIDS is the most advanced phase of HIV infection, when a person’s immune system is badly damaged, leading to an increasing number of severe illnesses, called opportunistic illnesses. Without treatment, people typically survive 3 years after developing AIDS. Symptoms of AIDS are similar to those of the first stage, including flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, and weakness. In the third stage, viral load is usually very high, and the person can be highly infectious. 

HIV is commonly diagnosed by testing the blood or saliva for antibodies to the virus. Most people develop antibodies to HIV within 28 days of infection, so antibodies may not be detectable early, during the so-called window period. A test that can be performed earlier tests the blood for HIV antigen; this can confirm a diagnosis soon after infection to prevent further spread of the virus. 

New ways to test for HIV include self-testing kits that are easy to do from home. If the test is positive, the person should go to a clinic for further testing.

Once an HIV diagnosis is made, there are several tests that can help a doctor determine the stage of the disease, including: 

  • CD4 cell count — The CD4 cells are targeted by HIV. The disease progresses to AIDS when CD4 cell count is below 200.
  • Viral load (HIV RNA) — This is a test to measure the amount of virus in blood. 
  • Drug resistance — This test helps to determine the specific form of the virus, since some strains of HIV are resistant to medications. 

New ways to test for HIV include self-testing kits that are easy to do from home. If the test is positive, the person should go to a clinic for further testing. Once a person is diagnosed with HIV, the person’s sexual partners or people they share needles with should be tested too. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), notifying a partner of your HIV status is defined as a voluntary process. Many states have laws requiring people to notify sexual partners or needle-sharing partners of a positive HIV status.

Through education and awareness, we can reduce the transmission of HIV. Below are crucial practices that can help prevent the spread of HIV. 

  • Use condoms. External or internal latex condoms, when used correctly, can prevent HIV from spreading during anal or vaginal sex. 
  • Test regularly for STIs and HIV. If you have multiple sexual partners, it’s a good idea to get tested regularly for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. It’s important to know your status and your partner’s status before having sex. 
  • Use a clean needle. Never share a needle or use a previously used needle to inject medicine or drugs. Make sure the needle is sterile and dispose of it properly after using it. Needle exchanges operate in the majority of states in the U.S. 
  • Consider male circumcision. Studies show that men who are circumcised have a lower risk of contracting HIV. 
  • Get medical care immediately if you become pregnant. If you are HIV-positive, there is a risk of transmitting the virus to your baby. Proper treatment can reduce that risk significantly. 
  • Take your medication every day. If you are HIV-positive, be vigil about taking your medication every day to slow the progression of the disease and keep the viral load low, thus reducing the risk of infecting your sexual partners. 
  • Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV-negative partners. People who are at high risk of contracting HIV should consider taking PrEP drugs to prevent HIV infection. 
  • Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). If you have been exposed to HIV, you can use these drugs within the first 72 hours of exposure to prevent infection.

There is no cure for HIV/AIDS. However, there are drugs that can keep the virus under control, and enable HIV-positive people to live longer, happier, and healthier lives. 

Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is the medication regimen used to treat HIV. These drugs help to reduce the viral load to undetectable levels, effectively eliminating the risk of transmission to an HIV-negative sexual partner.

There are drugs that can keep the virus under control, and enable HIV-positive people to live longer, happier, and healthier lives.

People who are HIV-positive should start ART as soon as possible to stop the progression of the disease. Those who are diligent about taking their medication every day can live long, healthy lives. 

The first thing to do after receiving an HIV diagnosis is to start on ART to suppress the virus and stop it from multiplying. Taking the medication daily, protects an HIV-positive person from the disease in addition to protecting their sexual partners. 

An HIV-positive diagnosis can have a huge impact on physical and mental health. HIV-positive people may encounter stigmas, discrimination, or personal struggles with mental health. It is important to seek support from a therapist, a support group, and ideally understanding family and friends. 

The first thing to do after receiving an HIV diagnosis is to start on ART to suppress the virus and stop it from multiplying.

It’s still possible to have a partner and raise children if you are HIV-positive. If an HIV-positive person becomes pregnant, it’s important they consult their doctor right away about medical care during pregnancy and childbirth to limit the chances of transmitting HIV to their baby. 

It is especially important for people who are HIV-positive to live an overall healthy lifestyle that includes following a nutrient-dense diet, regular exercise, and not smoking.

An HIV diagnosis can feel shocking and devastating. Thankfully, we have medication today that can keep the disease under control so that you can live a long, happy, and healthy life. These medications can also significantly reduce the risk of infecting others. 

Practice safe sex, get tested regularly, and never share needles with anyone else. By taking the necessary precautions, we can all work together to reduce the spread of HIV globally.

https://www.avert.org/about-hiv-aids/what-hiv-aids

https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/about-hiv-and-aids/symptoms-of-hiv

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hiv-aids/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20373531

https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hiv-aids

https://aidsinfo.nih.gov/understanding-hiv-aids/fact-sheets/21/51/hiv-treatment--the-basics

https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/livingwithhiv/index.html

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