A Comprehensive Guide to HIV: Everything You Need to Know

Did you know that HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, making it more vulnerable to illnesses and infection? There is no doubt that HIV leads to a great deal of fear, taboo and misunderstanding. It also has a devastating impact on the lives of those affected by it. Therefore, the need of the hour is to raise awareness about HIV and its symptoms, diagnosis and prevention. Let’s get started.

What is HIV?

HIV is a virus that can be dangerous to your health. It attacks the immune system, the body’s natural defense against illness. When HIV is not treated, it causes damage to the body by killing off CD4 cells, a type of cell that helps your body fight off infections. As HIV worsens, it kills off more CD4 cells; the body is more likely to get multiple illnesses and even cancer. 

How does HIV infection progress in the body?

HIV moves through three stages:

Stage 1- the acute stage (first few weeks after transmission)

Stage 2-the clinical latency (or chronic) stage

Stage 3-the AIDS stage 

During the chronic stage, HIV lowers the CD4 cell count in the body, weakening the immune system. 

For a healthy adult, the CD4 cell count should be between 500 to 1,500 per mm3. Those with HIV may have a cell count below 200 per mm3.

The speed at which HIV progresses through the chronic stage varies from person to person. 

Is there any difference between HIV and AIDS?

Often HIV and AIDS are used interchangeably, but these are not the same thing.

HIV stands for Human immunodeficiency virus while AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. So HIV is the virus which leads to the life threatening disease AIDS. It is the most advanced stage of HIV, where the immune system severely weakens and cannot fight off diseases and infections. Those living with AIDS are at a greater risk of life-threatening illnesses like pneumonia and tuberculosis. 

What are the symptoms of HIV infection?

After someone comes in contact with HIV, the first few weeks are known as the acute infection stage. During this time, the virus rapidly reproduces, and the immune system responds by producing HIV antibodies.

Although many people may experience no symptoms during this stage, some people can experience symptoms similar to the flu or other seasonal illness, such as 

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Sore Throat
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Swollen Lymph Nodes
  • General Aches And Pains
  • Skin Rash
  • Upset Stomach

After the acute stage, HIV enters the clinical latency stage. This stage can last anywhere from a few years to a few decades.

It is equally important to note that HIV is transferable even without symptoms and passes on to another person. 

Do men and women have the same symptoms?

More or less, men and women experience the same symptoms. The symptoms of HIV are different for each person and may come and go or become worse over time. 

However, women with HIV are at an increased risk for the following conditions:

  • Repeated vaginal yeast infections
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Changes in their menstrual cycle,

It is also important to note that HIV can be transmitted to a baby during pregnancy.

How does HIV spread?

Anyone can  develop HIV infection- the virus can be spread from person to person in the following ways:

  • Via bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal and rectal fluids.
  • Via vaginal or anal sex- it is the most common way of transmission.
  • Via sharing needles, syringes and other injection drug use items
  • Via tattoo equipment that has not been sterilized between uses.
  • Via Pregnancy-Pregnant women can transmit HIV to their babies during pregnancy or delivery
  • Via breastfeeding
  • Via surgical procedures-it can spreads through use of an infected needle, a blood transfusion or an organ and tissue transplant .

How will I detect HIV infection?

Several different tests can be used to diagnose HIV. 

Antibody/antigen tests 
Antibody/antigen tests are the most commonly used tests. These tests check the blood for antibodies and antigens, which are proteins the body produces in response to infection. Results can usually be seen within 18-45 days of contracting HIV. 

Antibody tests
Antibody tests check the blood solely for antibodies. Most people will develop detectable HIV antibodies between 23 and 90 days after transmission, which can be found in the blood or saliva. These tests can be done using a blood test or mouth swab and require no preparation. Some tests provide results in 30 minutes or less and can be performed in a healthcare provider’s office or clinic.

Nucleic acid test (NAT)
This expensive test isn’t for general screening; it’s for people who have early symptoms of HIV or have a known risk factor. Unlike other tests, this one looks for the virus itself rather than antibodies. It can take anywhere from 5 to 21 days for HIV to show up in the blood. To make sure you get an accurate result, it’s best to get an antibody test as well. 

Hence its important to note that a person infected with HIV may come negative on a test but can still transmit the infection.

What are the treatment options?

As soon as you are diagnosed with HIV, it is necessary to start antiretroviral treatment(ART)  as soon as possible after diagnosis to help protect your health and reduce the risk of transmitting HIV.

Antiretroviral therapy is a combination of medications that help prevent the virus from reproducing and attacking the immune system. It helps keep HIV from progressing to AIDS and reduces the risk of transmitting HIV to others.

While taking antiretroviral therapy, you may eventually reach an undetectable viral load. It means the virus is not visible in tests, but it is still in your body. 

If you stop taking the medication, the viral load will increase again, and HIV will continue to attack CD4 cells.

How can HIV be prevented?

Although there is no cure, research is constantly underway to find one. But until then, preventive measures are the most effective. The best way to prevent the spread of HIV is through awareness and access to prevention tools. 

  • Getting tested- it is necessary to get tested regularly to know your HIV status. Knowing your status allows you to take the appropriate steps to protect yourself and your partners. It is necessary to consult your doctor to determine which type of test is right for you.
  • Safer sex-it is important to practice safer sex. It means using condoms correctly and consistently every time you have sexual contact. Abstinence is also an option to completely avoid exposure to the virus.
  • Use condoms-Condoms are available in many places, and they are very effective at preventing HIV transmission when used correctly.
  • Avoid sharing needles and syringes – Always use a new needle and syringe.
  • Seek treatment as early as possible- if you are living with HIV, taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) can help to keep the virus suppressed in the body and lower the risk of passing it on during sexual contact or when sharing needles or syringes and decreases the symptoms and increases life span

If you experience any symptoms related to HIV, don’t delay consulting your doctor. Receiving the proper medical treatment and care is the only way to steer clear of any related medical complications.

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