HIV & AIDS: The Basics
HIV/AIDS is unfortunately not an unfamiliar term in this day and age. It has been a feared and dreaded virus that has either infected or affected every one of us. The stigma related to this dreaded virus creates an even more complex reality for both patients and their family members. Enough with the myths - Grace Health is here to help you learn more about it so you can distinguish the facts from the myths. Unlike 30 years ago, HIV is no longer a death sentence and having all the information helps in ending the stigma and also learning how to take care of your loved ones who are HIV-positive.
What is HIV?
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks cells that help the body fight infection, making a person more vulnerable to other infections and diseases. Untreated HIV affects and kills virus cells in your immune system and weakens your ability to fight everyday infections and diseases. Over time, as HIV kills more cells, the body is more likely to get various types of conditions and cancers. It is spread by contact with certain bodily fluids of a person with HIV, most commonly during unprotected sex (sex without a condom). If left untreated, HIV can lead to the disease AIDS.
What is AIDS?
AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is the late stage of HIV infection that occurs when the body’s immune system is badly damaged because of the virus. But just because a person has HIV doesn’t mean it will develop into AIDS. HIV kills CD4 cells( a type of immune cell we mentioned earlier). Healthy adults generally have a CD4 count of 500 to 1,600 per cubic millimetre. A person with HIV whose CD4 count falls below 200 per cubic millimetre will be diagnosed with AIDS. Without treatment, it usually takes about 10 years for someone with HIV to develop AIDS. Since there’s currently no cure for AIDS, life expectancy without treatment after diagnosis is about 3 years. However, treatment with antiretroviral drugs can prevent AIDS from developing.
How do you get HIV?
Since HIV is spread through body fluids, it is carried in semen (cum), vaginal fluids, anal mucus, blood, and breast milk. The virus gets in your body through cuts or sores in your skin, and through mucous membranes (like the inside of the vagina, rectum, and opening of the penis). You can get HIV from:
having unprotected vaginal or anal sex
sharing needles or syringes for shooting drugs, piercings, tattoos, etc.
getting stuck with a needle that has HIV-infected blood on it
getting HIV-infected blood, semen (cum), or vaginal fluids into open cuts or sores on your body
HIV can also be passed to babies during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. A pregnant woman with HIV can take medicine to greatly reduce the chance of infecting her unborn child with HIV.
Although there have been numerous myths on how HIV is transferred from person to person, it is important to note that, it does NOT transfer through:
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
How can you tell if you have HIV?
The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. You can’t rely on symptoms to tell whether you have HIV. Your HIV status gives you powerful information so you can take steps to keep yourself and your partner(s) healthy:
If you are positive, you can take medicine to treat HIV. People with HIV who take HIV medicine (called antiretroviral therapy or ART) as prescribed can live long and healthy lives and will not transmit HIV to their HIV-negative partners through sex.
If you are negative, you have more HIV prevention tools available today than ever before, like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), medicine people at risk for HIV take to prevent getting HIV from sex or injection drug use, and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), HIV medicine is taken within 72 hours after a possible exposure to prevent the virus from taking hold.
If you are pregnant, you should be tested for HIV so that you can begin treatment if you're HIV-positive. If you have HIV and take HIV medicine as prescribed throughout your pregnancy and childbirth and give HIV medicine to your baby for 4 to 6 weeks after giving birth, your risk of transmitting HIV to your baby can be less than 1%.
What are the symptoms of HIV?
After about one month, HIV enters a stage called the clinical latency stage. This stage can last from a few years to a few decades. Some people may not have any symptoms during this time, while others may have minimal or nonspecific symptoms. A nonspecific symptom is a symptom that doesn’t belong to one specific disease or condition.
Some nonspecific symptoms may include:
headaches and other aches and pains
swollen lymph nodes
recurrent oral or vaginal yeast infections
What about the symptoms of AIDS?
Symptoms of AIDS can include:
bumps, lesions, or rashes of the skin
recurrent or chronic diarrhoea
rapid weight loss
dark splotches under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
sores, spots, or lesions of the mouth and tongue, genitals, or anus
neurologic problems such as trouble concentrating, memory loss, and confusion
chronic swollen lymph glands, especially of the armpits, neck, and groin
anxiety and depression
How is HIV treated?
After a diagnosis of HIV, treatment should begin as soon as possible. Antiretroviral medicines are used to treat HIV. They work by stopping the virus from replicating in the body, allowing the immune system to repair itself and preventing further damage. These come in the form of tablets, which need to be taken every day. When treatment is effective, the viral load will be “undetectable.” The person still has HIV, but the virus is not visible in the 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.
Any tips for living with HIV?
If you're living with HIV, sticking to your HIV treatment and being undetectable significantly reduces your risk of passing HIV to others.
You should also try to:
Eat a healthy diet
Have yearly flu jabs to minimise the risk of getting serious illnesses
What about prevention?
No vaccine protects against HIV, but a lot is being done to make one. In the meantime, there are many effective ways to prevent or reduce the risk of HIV infection, including:
using a condom for sex
post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP)
pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)
treatment for HIV to reduce the viral load to undetectable
if you use drugs, never share needles or other injecting equipment, including syringes, spoons and swabs
Speak to your local doctor for further advice about the best way to reduce your risk.
The bottom line
HIV is a virus that attacks cells that help the body fight infection, making a person more vulnerable to other infections and diseases. If left untreated, HIV can lead to the disease AIDS. The virus is spread by contact with certain bodily fluids of a person with HIV. During earlier stages, one may experience nonspecific symptoms. Since the only way to determine if you have it is through testing, early testing means treatment can start earlier and make the virus undetectable. While there may not be a vaccine, there are still a few things you can do to prevent it. If you have any further questions you can either Ask Grace or speak to a doctor.
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