- HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus compromises the body’s ability to handle disease and causes AIDS. This is a slow process, and positive people may not have symptoms for over a decade.
- AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is related to HIV, but they are not one in the same. A person has AIDS only in the final stages of HIV, after the immune system becomes unable to defend itself against foreign invaders like bacteria, other viruses, and fungi, and allows for the development of certain cancers.
- According to the most recent estimates, about 33.3 million people are living with HIV today.
- About one in four people with HIV don’t know that they are infected. HIV is often asymptomatic for years, so the only way to know your status is to get tested. The earlier HIV is discovered, the better it can be treated.
How is HIV transmitted?
- Having sex without using a condom. HIV infection can happen through anal, vaginal, or oral sex if you don’t use a condom. Unprotected (condom-less) oral sex is not as risky as vaginal and anal, but still can spread HIV, especially when there are cuts, bleeding gums or canker sores in the mouth. Learn more about condoms and their use.
- Sharing needles, syringes, or drug works. Sharing any of the equipment to inject drugs can spread HIV.
- Pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. Without treatment, an HIV positive woman will transmit HIV to her child during pregnancy or childbirth about 25% of the time. Babies can also become positive through breastfeeding.
What are the symptoms of HIV?
HIV infection has spread so far so fast in part because it can lack symptoms for many years. When HIV emerges from latency – the period when someone with HIV shows no sign of it – symptoms can include:
- Dry, flaky skin
- Persistent tiredness
- Fever that comes and goes
- Diarrhea that lasts more than one week.
- Heavy night sweats
- Rapid weight loss
- Swollen lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, or neck
- White spots on the tongue, mouth, or throat
- Symptoms specific to infection of certain areas of the body, such as headaches for the brain and cough for the lungs.
Having these symptoms doesn’t mean a person has HIV or AIDS. Many illnesses have symptoms like these. The only way to know if you’re positive is to get tested.
How does HIV progress?
HIV progresses to AIDS at different speeds. Factors which may lead one person to develop AIDS quicker than another include an immune system that is genetically more vulnerable and the use of drugs such as methamphetamine. Antiretroviral medication can delay the progression of the disease dramatically.
In the period between infection and an AIDS diagnosis, people with HIV may show no outward signs of infection, or they may experience some symptoms while their immune systems aren’t severely compromised.
A person with HIV receives an AIDS diagnosis when the body’s CD4 cell count – the number of key immune cells in a cubic millimeter of blood – drops below 200, or if he or she has an opportunistic infection or HIV-related cancer.
What is an opportunistic infection?
As HIV progresses, the immune system becomes less able to defend the body against common bacteria and viruses. These infections are called “opportunistic” because they take advantage of the weakened immune system. People with HIV are more likely to develop certain illnesses like pneumonia, fungal infections, and some cancers, for example, than other people.
Myths vs. facts
- “HIV is a death sentence”. In the 1970’s and 80’s, people with HIV had extremely limited treatment options, and often died quickly after they first got sick. Since then, advances in medical treatment have made it possible to live long and well with HIV. Research into still better treatment is ongoing.
- “HIV only affects gay men or drug users.” HIV is an equal opportunity virus. Newborn babies, women, seniors, teens, and people of all races or nationalities can have HIV. The prevalence of the
virus in different groups varies (as it does for other diseases), but it can effect anyone. Of HIV positive people worldwide, slightly more than half are women.
- “HIV can be cured.” Beliefs that HIV can be cured through specific sex acts or by new medicines are unfounded. There is no cure for HIV. Antiretroviral therapy can reduce the presence of the virus in the body, but not eliminate it.
- “HIV can be spread through casual contact, through kissing or by mosquitos.” Contact with
blood, semen, vaginal fluid or breast mild of someone with HIV is necessary to get the virus. HIV is not airborne and cannot be caught by touching skin, sweat, or saliva. This means that holding hands, sharing drinking glasses, and other casual contact can’t spread HIV. Open-mouthed kissing is likewise extremely low risk – open sores or blood would need to be present for transmission. Mosquitos do not inject other people’s blood when they bite, and so can’t spread HIV.
- “HIV can’t be spread if you are taking antiretroviral medicine, or if you use birth control.” Safer sex and, if you inject drugs, clean works are necessary to keep from spreading HIV. Antiretroviral therapy will control HIV symptoms and progression, but it won’t prevent infection by itself. Birth control methods like the pill, sponges, diaphragms, and spermicides are designed to prevent pregnancy, not infection. None of these methods protect against HIV or other STDs.
How do I prevent HIV or the spread of HIV?
Preventing HIV starts with self-care, by knowing your HIV status, by having safe sex, and, if you inject drugs, by using clean needles.
If you inject drugs, use new, sterile needles. Clean needles are a must, and anything you use to inject that come is contact with blood can also carry HIV. Using new needles and syringes for each injection significantly reduces the risk of HIV transmission.
If you are having sex and you want to prevent HIV transmission, you need to use a condom or other barrier consistently – every time. HIV can be spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. While mouth-to-genital contact is not as risky as intercourse, the possibility of HIV transmission is still there.
Condoms are extremely effective in stopping the spread of HIV and reducing the transmission of many other sexually transmitted diseases. They are also easy to use with a little practice.
If you are exposed to HIV during sex, you are more likely to become infected – or if you are positive, superinfected-if you have another STD. Open sores from STDs like herpes and syphilis provide a gateway for HIV to enter your body. Gonorrhea and chlamydia may weaken the skin and mucous barriers that help prevent infection.
Where can I get HIV testing?
You can get free HIV testing at Comanche County Health Department or at the local RAIN office. It is confidential. You can also ask your doctor for a test, or buy a Home Access kit and test yourself.
It takes three weeks to six months for the body to create antibodies to HIV. Most HIV tests work by detecting those antibodies, so if you think you have been exposed, three to six months later is a good time to get tested. If you are sexually active or using needles, a test every six months is a good idea regardless.