HIV and AIDS: What you need to know

HIV and AIDS: Meanings and definitions

HIV is the virus, which attacks the T-cells (CD-4 cells) in the immune system. AIDS is the syndrome, which appears in the advanced stage of HIV infection.

HIV is a virus.

AIDS is a medical condition.

HIV infection can cause AIDS to develop. However, it is possible to be infected with HIV without developing AIDS. Without treatment, the HIV infection can progress and, eventually, it will develop into AIDS in the vast majority of cases. Once someone has received an AIDS diagnosis, it will always carry over with them in their medical history.

Causes of HIV and AIDS

HIV and AIDSHIV can be passed from one person to another through blood-to-blood and sexual contact.

HIV is a retrovirus that infects the vital organs and cells of the human immune system.

The virus progresses in the absence of antiretroviral therapy (ART) - a drug therapy that slows or prevents the growth of new HIV viruses.

The rate of virus progression varies widely between individuals and depends on many factors;

These factors include the age of the patient, the body's ability to defend against HIV, access to healthcare, existence of other infections, the infected person's genetic inheritance, resistance to certain strains of HIV, and more.

How is HIV transmitted?

Sexual transmission - it can happen when there is contact with infected sexual fluids (rectal, genital, or oral mucous membranes). This can happen while having unprotected sex, including vaginal, oral, and anal sex, or sharing sex toys with someone infected with HIV.

Perinatal transmission - a mother can pass the infection on to her child during childbirth, pregnancy, and also through breastfeeding.

Blood transmission - the risk of transmitting HIV through blood transfusion is nowadays extremely low in developed countries, thanks to meticulous screening and precautions. However, among injection or IV drug users, sharing and reusing syringes contaminated with HIV-infected blood is extremely hazardous.

HIV symptoms

For the most part, the symptoms of HIV are the result of infections caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and/or parasites.

These conditions do not normally develop in individuals with healthy immune systems, which protect the body against infection.

Symptoms of early HIV infection

Many people with HIV have no symptoms for several months to even years after becoming infected. Others may develop symptoms similar to flu, usually 2-6 weeks after catching the virus.

The symptoms of early HIV infection may include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • joint pain
  • muscle aches
  • sore throat
  • sweats (particularly at night)
  • enlarged glands
  • a red rash
  • tiredness
  • weakness
  • unintentional weight loss

Asymptomatic HIV

In many cases, after the initial symptoms disappear, there will not be any further symptoms for many years.

During this time, the virus carries on developing and damaging the immune system and organs. Without being on medications to stop HIV's replication, this process can take up to 10 years on average. The infected person often experiences no symptoms, feels well, and appears healthy.

Late-stage HIV infection

If left untreated, HIV weakens the ability to fight infection. The person becomes vulnerable to serious illnesses. This stage of infection is known as AIDS.

Symptoms of late-stage HIV infection may include:

  • blurred vision
  • diarrhea, which is usually persistent or chronic
  • dry cough
  • fever of above 100 °F (37 °C) lasting for weeks
  • night sweats
  • permanent tiredness
  • shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • swollen glands lasting for weeks
  • unintentional weight loss
  • white spots on the tongue or mouth

During late-stage HIV infection, the risk of developing a life-threatening illness is much greater. Life-threatening illnesses may be controlled, avoided,and/or treated with proper medications, often including HIV treatment.

HIV and AIDS myths and facts

There are many misconceptions about HIV and AIDS. The virus CANNOT be transmitted from:

  • shaking hands
  • hugging
  • casual kissing
  • sneezing
  • touching unbroken skin
  • using the same toilet
  • sharing towels
  • sharing cutlery
  • mouth-to-mouth resuscitation
  • or other forms of "casual contact"

Diagnosis of HIV and AIDS

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimate that about 1 in every 8 HIV-positive Americans is unaware of their HIV-status.

HIV blood tests and results

Diagnosis is made through a blood test that screens specifically for the virus. If the HIV virus has been found, the test result is "positive." The blood is re-tested several times before a positive result is given to the patient.

If a person has been exposed to the virus, it is crucial that they get tested as soon as possible. The earlier HIV is detected, the more likely the treatment will be successful. A home testing kit can be used as well.

After infection with HIV, it can take from 3 weeks to 6 months for the virus to show up in testing. Re-testing may be necessary. If the moment a patient was most at risk of infection was within the last 6 months, they can have the test immediately. However, the provider will urge that another test be carried out within a few weeks.

AIDS treatments

HIV and AIDSThe red ribbon is the worldwide symbol of support and awareness for people living with HIV.

There is currently no cure for HIV or AIDS. Treatments can slow the course of the condition - and allow most infected people the opportunity to live a long and relatively healthy life.

Earlier HIV antiretroviral treatment is crucial - it improves quality of life, extends life expectancy, and reduces the risk of transmission, according to the World Health Organization's guidelines issued in June 2013.

Currently, there is no vaccine or cure for HIV, but treatments have evolved which are much more effective and better tolerated - they can improve patients' general health and quality of life considerably, in as little as one pill per day.

Emergency HIV pills (post-exposure prophylaxis)

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).

After a positive HIV diagnosis, regular blood tests are necessary to monitor the progress of the virus before starting treatment. The therapy is designed to reduce the level of HIV in the blood, which has many benefits. Antiretroviral drugs

HIV is treated with antiretrovirals (ARVs). The treatment fights the HIV infection and slows down the spread of the virus in the body. Generally, patients take a combination of medications called HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy) or cART (combination antiretroviral therapy).

The combination of drugs is adapted to each individual. HIV treatment is usually permanent and lifelong. HIV treatment is based on routine dosage. Pills must be taken on a regular schedule, every time. Each class of ARVs has different side effects, but some possible common side effects may include nausea, fatigue, diarrhea, headache, skin rashes, or moodiness.

Complementary or alternative medicine

Although widely used, alternative pr complementary medications, such as herbal ones, have not been proven to be effective. According to some limited studies, mineral or vitamin supplements may provide some benefits in overall health. Patients are urged to discuss these options with their providers especially because some of these options, even vitamin supplements, may have drug interactions with ARVs.

HIV prevention

To prevent being infected with HIV, healthcare professionals advise precautions related to:

Unprotected sex - having sex without a condom can put a person at risk of being infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). HIV can be spread by having unprotected sex (vaginal, oral, and/or anal sex). It can also be caught from sharing sex toys with someone infected with HIV. Condoms should be used with every sexual act.

Drug abuse and needle sharing - intravenous drug use is an important factor in HIV transmission in developed countries. Sharing needles can expose users to HIV and other viruses, such as hepatitis C. Strategies such as needle-exchange programs are used to reduce the infections caused by drug abuse. If someone needs to use a needle, it must be a clean, unused, unshared needle.

Body fluid exposure - exposure to HIV can be controlled by employing precautions to reduce the risk of exposure to contaminated blood. At all times, healthcare workers should use barriers (gloves, masks, protective eyewear, shields, and gowns). Frequent and thorough washing of the skin immediately after being contaminated with blood or other bodily fluids can reduce the chance of infection.

Pregnancy - some ARVs can harm the unborn child. But an effective treatment plan can prevent HIV transmission from mother to baby. Precautions have to be taken to protect the baby's health. Delivery through caesarean section may be necessary. HIV-infected mothers should not breastfeed.

Education - health education is an important factor in reducing risky behavior.

Managing HIV

Adherence - 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. "Adherence" is sometimes known as "compliance".

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.

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.

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.

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.

HIV and AIDS

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