First and foremost, it is important to know that being HIV-positive is not a death sentence. That being said, let’s roll!
Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is a virus that attacks the body’s infection-fighting immune system. The virus is found in the blood and body fluids of people infected with HIV. Without treatment, HIV can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). But today’s treatments help lower the amount of virus in the blood so people who are HIV-positive can live healthier lives.
AIDS, short for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is the most advanced stage of HIV. It refers to the set of symptoms a person develops when the immune system is too weak to fight off infection. HIV is a virus while AIDS is a disease condition.
People with AIDS have severe immune-system damage. This can be determined two ways. One is by the number of CD4 cells in a sample of blood. A CD4 cell is a type of white blood cell that attacks infection. HIV destroys CD4 cells, so a person’s count declines. AIDS is diagnosed when the CD4 count falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. Standard range for an healthy person is between 500 and 1,500. Another sign of AIDS is when the person infected with HIV develops one or more infections, regardless of their CD4 count, that are more common or more severe among people with weakened immune systems. These infections are called opportunistic infections. Bacterial, fungal, viral, and parasitic infections, including pneumocystis pneumonia, Kaposi’s sarcoma (a type of cancer that causes spots on the skin), and tuberculosis are called opportunistic infections. These infections take advantage of a person’s damaged immune system.
Without treatment, HIV gradually destroys the immune system. The time it takes for HIV to progress and become AIDS varies from person to person. On average, it takes 10 years. Advances in treatment have helped millions stave off symptoms of AIDS.
Signs and symptoms of HIV
HIV symptoms are not a reliable indicator of infection. The early signs of HIV are much like any other infection and the time it takes to show in individuals differ. So the only way to know whether you have it is to get tested. Some people may not feel sick at all in the early stage of HIV, also known as acute infection. HIV may not even show up on some diagnostic tests at this early stage. Yet this is the time when the virus is most contagious.
Signs that occur within the first six months of infection including the first two to four weeks may include fever, muscle aches, night sweats, diarrhea, chills, sore throat, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, or some combination of flu-like symptoms. HIV rash can be a symptom of infection or a side effect of medication. Symptoms may last a few days to a few weeks.
After the early stage of infection, people with HIV may have mild or no symptoms. Even without treatment, this chronic stage of the disease can last for a decade, while people taking medications for their HIV can live in this stage even longer. However, the virus remains active and HIV is still contagious at this stage. Even people who don’t have symptoms can transmit the infection to others. Treatment reduces the amount of virus in the blood, making transmission less likely.
Methods of transfer of HIV
HIV lives in blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal and vaginal fluids, and breast milk. You can get HIV when one of these tainted fluids enters your bloodstream or passes through mucous membranes (found in the rectum, vagina, penis, and mouth) or damaged tissue. This transfer can occur through:
* Unprotected anal or vaginal sex with someone who has HIV
* Sharing needles, syringes, and other sharp objects with someone who has HIV
* Mother to child during birth or through breastfeeding
* Unscreened blood transfusion
HIV is not acquired through casual contact. You don’t get it from saliva or tears, kissing, mosquito bites, shared toilet seats, or food prepared by someone with HIV. Open-mouth kissing may be risky if both partners have mouth sores or bleeding gums.
If an individual believes they have been exposed to the virus within the last 72 hours (3 days), anti-HIV medications, called PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) may stop infection. The treatment should be taken as soon as possible after contact with the virus. PEP is a very demanding treatment lasting 4 weeks, a total of 28 days. It can be associated with unpleasant side effects (diarrhea, nausea, and headache).
HIV treatment is called antiretroviral therapy (ART), which involves taking a combination of medicines every day. More than 25 medicines are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat HIV, and some of these medicines are available as combination pills. These medicines fall into six drug classes that differ in how they attack the virus. Each class of medicines targets the virus at a different stage of the HIV life cycle. ART doesn’t cure HIV. But it does slow the virus’s attack on the immune system, keeping people healthier longer. It also helps reduce the risk of HIV transmission.
Antiretroviral drugs introduced in the mid-1990s prolong life by reducing a person’s “viral load”–the amount of virus in the blood and body fluids–and boosting their CD4 (white blood cell) counts. That gives the immune system a fighting chance. The specific medicines in each person’s HIV drug regimen vary depending on individual needs, including the amount of virus in a person’s blood, other health conditions a patient may have, or whether she is pregnant. Doctors may also consider possible side effects and potential drug interactions as well as the cost and convenience of various options when prescribing ART.
Taking these medicines regularly, as directed, can prevent HIV-related opportunistic infections and lower your risk of infecting other people. While HIV remains present in blood and body fluids, the amount of virus declines, ideally to an undetectable level. That’s why it’s important to get diagnosed as soon as possible to initiate treatment. Typically, it takes three to six months for these medicines to reduce the amount of virus in the blood to an undetectable level.
There’s no cure for HIV, but it’s manageable if patients take their medicines as directed. People who are treated before the disease progresses too far can expect to live nearly as long as someone who does not have HIV, according to the CDC.
Living with HIV means sticking to a treatment plan. But life can sometimes make that difficult.
1. Compliance – HIV treatment is effective if the patient is committed and constant in taking the medication on time. Missing even a few doses may jeopardize the treatment. A daily, methodical routine should be programmed to fit the treatment plan around the patient’s lifestyle and schedule. A treatment plan for one person may not be the same treatment plan for another.
2. General Health – it is crucial for patients to take medication correctly and take steps to avoid illness. Patients should seek to improve their general health and reduce the risk of falling ill by practicing regular exercise, healthy eating, and not smoking.
3. Additional precautions – HIV-infected people should be extra cautious to prevent exposure to infection. They should be careful around animals, avoid coming into contact with cat litter, and animal feces, and often birds too. Meticulous and regular washing of hands is recommended.
4. Long-term condition – HIV is a lasting condition, and therefore patients have to be in regular contact with their healthcare team. Treatment plan is reviewed regularly.
5. Psychological – common misconceptions about AIDS and HIV are diminishing. However, the stigma of the condition persists in many parts of the world. People infected with the virus may feel excluded, rejected, discriminated, and isolated.
Being diagnosed with HIV can be very distressing, and feelings of anxiety or depression are common. If you feel anxious or have symptoms of depression, seek medical help immediately. The first stage in overcoming HIV is knowing your status, it is the proverbial stitch in time that saves nine. So, get tested!