Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) spread during unprotected sex or from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breast-feeding. There's no cure for HIV/AIDS, but certain medicines dramatically slow the progression of the disease.
How Is HIV Spread?
HIV is spread via unprotected anal or vaginal sex with someone with the virus. People can also contract it when sharing infected drug equipment like needles. A pregnant woman can transmit HIV to her child during childbirth.
Specifically, the virus is transmitted via contact with certain body fluids from a person already infected with HIV. These fluids include rectal fluids, breast milk, pre-cum, semen, and blood. The virus can only be contracted if the fluids come in contact with a compromised mucous membrane like the tissue inside the rectum, the vagina, the opening of the penis, and the mouth. Transmission can also occur if infected fluids come in contact with damaged tissue or if the fluids are directly injected into the bloodstream.
HIV cannot get transmitted from casual contact like handshakes, hugs, or closed-mouth kisses with an infected person. Similarly, someone can’t get the virus from contact with objects such as toilet seats, doorknobs, or dishes used by someone with the virus.
Lowering Your Risk of Infection
HIV is sexually transmitted so adjusting sexual behaviors lowers the risk of contracting HIV. Sexually active adults can:
* Get themself and their partner tested before having sex
* Use a latex condom correctly and consistently during each sexual encounter
* Limit sexual partners—with more partners there is a higher chance of having a partner with poorly controlled HIV or another sexually transmitted infection
* Since HIV is mainly spread by having anal or vaginal sex without a condom, limiting risky sexual behaviors can lower risk of infection
* Avoid shared needles of drugs—if an injectable medication is about to be taken, injection equipment should be sterile
* Use pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) an HIV prevention option for people who don't have HIV but who are at risk of getting HIV. PrEP is prescribed by a healthcare professional and involves taking a specific HIV medicine daily, which reduces the risk of getting HIV through sex or injection drug use.
PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) is also available, for example, for people in the healthcare field who might have suffered a needle stick from a used needle on someone with unknown HIV status or it can also be used for rape victims.
HIV Signs Symptoms and Stages
HIV symptoms progress through a number of stages:
Stage 1: Acute HIV infection
Within two to four weeks of contracting HIV, people may experience these flu-like symptoms:
* Swollen lymph nodes
* Muscle and joint pain
* Ulcers in the mouth and on genitals
* Sore Throat
These symptoms may last for several weeks as your body responds to the infection. At this stage, people are often unaware that they’re infected because symptoms are so mild or non-existent. At the same time, the infected person will have a large amount of the virus in their blood and are very contagious as a result.
Either an antigen/antibody test or a nucleic acid (NAT) test is necessary to identify the infection.
Stage 2: Clinical latency (HIV inactivity or dormancy)
During this phase, the virus is still active but reproduces at very low levels, and this period can last a decade or longer, even if they’re taking medicine to treat the virus. The symptoms may progress faster in some people, but others may not have any symptoms or get sick during this time.
Infected individuals can still transmit HIV to others in this phase. However, if they keep taking their antivirals as prescribed and maintain an undetectable virus load, the risk of transmitting the virus is significantly lower.
Toward the end of this phase, the person’s viral load (amount of HIV in their blood) and symptoms may increase.
Stage 3: Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)
By stage three, HIV carriers develop Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) which can severely damage the immune system. As a result, people infected with AIDS are more susceptible to getting extremely sick or even dying from something that an uninfected person would be able to fight off.
People with AIDS typically survive about three years if the disease is left untreated. At this stage, people’s virus load is high so they’re very infectious again.
Common symptoms of AIDS include:
* Swollen lymph glands
* Oral sores
* Weight loss
* Complications and progression to AIDS
Left untreated, HIV develops into AIDS in 8-10 years. Thankfully, most people with HIV don’t develop AIDS in the US because of antiviral treatments. Because AIDS compromises the immune system, people who are infected can develop opportunistic infections (diseases that wouldn't usually cause illness in a person with a healthy immune system) and cancers.
Opportunistic infections manifesting in AIDS patients can look like:
* A recurring fever
* Chronic diarrhea
* Swollen lymph glands
* Rashes or skin bumps
* Persistent fatigue
* Weight loss
* Persistent thrush
When To Test for HIV?
Unfortunately, the only way to confirm an HIV diagnosis is via a test—symptoms can mislead infected people to believe they simply have the flu. Having flu-like symptoms doesn’t mean you have HIV but if you have these symptoms after potential exposure to HIV, see a health care provider to get tested.
If you suspect your partner of having HIV/AIDS or any sexually transmitted infection and are sexually active, especially if you do not use protection, it’s critical to get yourself and your partner tested.
If someone is concerned they may have contracted HIV, they should reach out to a medical professional to get tested. Here are the currently available tests:
* A nucleic acid tests (NAT) uses a blood sample to look for the actual virus. This test can detect the virus or tell how much virus is present in the blood.
* Antigen/antibody tests look for both HIV antibodies and antigens in the blood.
* HIV antibody (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays [ELISAs], HIV -1/HIV-2 differentiation assays, Western blot)
* HIV antigen
* HIV RNA (qualitative or quantitative)
These tests all require laboratory analysis which my delay results by 2-3 days. However, some finger-prick tests draw blood and analyze the sample within 20-30 minutes (known as rapid tests).
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for HIV currently, but with proper medical attention, the virus can be controlled. HIV treatment is called Antiretroviral Therapy or ART.
Standard ART consists of the combination of three or more antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to suppress the HIV virus and stop the progression of the disease. There are many ART options that combine three HIV medications into one pill, taken once daily. Especially in early stages of the virus, ART prevents onward transmission of HIV.
If ART is taken as prescribed, an infected person’s viral load can become undetectable. Today, someone infected with HIV can live nearly as long as someone without the virus if diagnosed and treated early enough.
Need A Low-Cost/Free HIV Test?
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