What Is HIV, the Virus That Causes AIDS?
HIV is short for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus attacks and suppresses the immune system, making those who have it more susceptible to infections and cancer. AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (a disease where the body’s cellular immunity is severely damaged and thus lowers your resistance to infection and/or malignancy). HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. While there is no cure for the disease, there are medications that slow down its progression. People who have HIV can take measures to decrease the risk of transmitting the virus to others.
Where Did HIV/AIDS Come from?
HIV is a virus that likely originated in monkeys and apes in Africa. One theory says that HIV started as a virus that infected these animals. The virus later changed into a form that was able to infect humans. The disease may have started infecting humans more than 100 years ago. There was an HIV pandemic in Congo in the 1920s. The virus then made its way to the population of Haiti in the 1960s. It later emerged in the United States and other countries first and became very prevalent (world-wide) in the 1980s.
What Does HIV Do to the Immune System?
HIV attacks white blood cells, or T cells, in the immune system. It attacks a certain kind of white blood cell called a CD4-positive T cell. The virus replicates, making copies of itself, and infects greater numbers of T cells. As more T cells are damaged by the virus, the levels of healthy T cells decrease and a person is susceptible to infections and certain kinds of cancers. When enough T cells are infected by the virus, AIDS develops.
How Does HIV Spread?
HIV spreads through contact with infected bodily fluids. Sex and sharing needles are the two main ways HIV is transmitted. Body fluids that may contain and transmit HIV include pre-ejaculate, semen, blood, vaginal fluid, breast milk, and rectal mucus. The fluid from an infected person much come into contact with a mucous membrane, the bloodstream, or a cut or injured area of another person to transmit the virus.
Can HIV Be Spread Through Casual Contact?
It is not possible to get HIV from an infected person with whom you have casual contact. You can’t get HIV from hugging, shaking hands, a toilet seat, a drinking fountain, or by eating food prepared by a person who is HIV-positive. You cannot get HIV from a bug bite. You cannot contract the virus from tears, saliva, sweat, or closed-mouth kissing. HIV dies quickly when it is on surfaces outside of the human body.
Does HIV Cause Early Symptoms?
The majority of people who have contracted HIV do not know it when they first become infected. However, some people get flu-like symptoms within 2 to 4 weeks of infection. The early symptoms of HIV may include fever, headache, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and a sore throat. Today, testing can detect HIV infection much earlier than testing could in the past. If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms and have engaged in behavior that may have put you at risk of contracting HIV, see your doctor and be tested.
What Are the Symptoms of AIDS?
HIV infection follows three stages, the last of which is the most severe and causes full-blown AIDS. The first stage is the acute infection stage. Many people who first acquire HIV do not experience any symptoms. The ones who do may suffer from flu-like symptoms. The second stage of HIV is called clinical latency. This means the virus is inactive, dormant, and reproduces at a much slower rate than it did in the acute phase. This stage may last for up to one decade, but in some people it may progress faster. The third stages of HIV infection is full-blown AIDS. In this stage, people have very low T-cell counts and compromised immune systems that make them susceptible to infections and certain kinds of cancer. Early detection and treatment of HIV can help prevent the development of full-blown AIDS.
Who Is at Risk for HIV?
Anyone can get HIV at any age, but certain populations are more at risk than others. Men who have sex with other men and people who inject drugs are at high risk of contracting HIV. Infected mothers who are pregnant may pass the virus on to the fetus in utero. Infected moms may also pass the HIV virus on to their babies in breast milk. A man who is infected may pass the virus on to a woman. Approximately 1.1 million people in the United States were living with HIV as of 2014. About 1 in 7 people who have HIV do not know they have it.
Who Should Be Tested for HIV?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all people between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV at least once as a part of routine health care. People at high risk of contracting HIV should be tested at least once a year. High risk groups include men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, those who have sexually-transmitted infections, and those who have multiple sex partners. Several different types of tests are available to detect HIV. At-home tests are available that may provide results in as soon as 20 or 30 minutes. If you test negative for HIV but have recently engaged in high-risk behavior, get retested 3 months later because it can take that long for the body to make HIV antibodies.
What Are HIV/AIDS Treatments?
HIV/AIDS used to be a much deadlier infection prior to the development of drugs that help slow progression of the disease. If you are diagnosed with HIV, see your doctor for treatment as soon as possible. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) involves taking two or more drugs from several classes. These medications stop HIV from replicating or prevent the virus from infecting new T cells. These drug cocktails are tailored to the individual by the doctor. People who are infected with HIV and adhere to their treatment plan have the same life expectancy as those who are not infected.
Do Alternative Treatments Work for HIV?
There is no cure for HIV. Antiretroviral therapy increases the chance that people living with HIV will have a normal life expectancy. No alternative treatments or folk remedies are proven to treat or cure HIV. However, many people with HIV may use yoga, acupuncture, massage, meditation, and visualization as adjunctive or supportive methods adjusts to standard treatment. These therapies may help reduce stress and help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with HIV/AIDS. Some people use herbal medicine, too. Check with your doctor before incorporating complementary and alternative therapies into your treatment regimen, especially regarding herbs. Some herbs may interfere with the activity of certain medications.
What Are Self-Care Strategies for Managing HIV?
People who have HIV are an increased risk of infections and other conditions. It is important to take care of yourself.
- Eat a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, lean meat, fish, and dairy products. Minimize your intake of sugar and salt.
- Aim to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day, as long as your doctor has said that it is safe for you to exercise.
- Get adequate sleep and rest.
- Spend time with friends and family. Social support is important for your body and mind.
- See your doctor for routine checkups.
- Seek the help of a therapist if you suffer from depression or anxiety.
- Take your medications, including HIV medications, as prescribed. If you are experiencing side effects, see your doctor. He or she can adjust your regimen, if needed. Newer HIV drugs are generally better tolerated than older medications.
Do I Have to Disclose That I Have HIV?
In general, you should tell people who may be impacted by your HIV status about your illness. Your doctor should know to optimize your care. You may want to tell close friends and family about your condition. You may want to disclose that you have HIV to others who have it, such as those in a support group. Sex partners and people you share needles with need to know if you are HIV positive. They are at risk of contracting the virus from you. Some states have laws that make it a crime not to disclose your HIV-positive status to sex partners or needle-sharing partners before you have sex or inject drugs. Employers are not allowed to discriminate based on HIV status.
Can You Prevent HIV?
Practicing sexual abstinence and avoiding high-risk behavior are is the only sure-fire ways to maximally reduce risk or to prevent contracting HIV. If you are going to have sex, use a condom every time (reduces but does not eliminate risk of HIV infection). Limit the number of sexual partners you have to decrease your risk of exposure. You are less likely to be infected with HIV from having oral sex than from having vaginal sex or anal sex. If you are at very high risk of contracting HIV, ask your doctor about medications that may substantially reduce your risk of getting the virus. If you engage in high-risk behavior, prophylactic medication is available to decrease the risk of contracting HIV. If you do inject drugs, always use clean, sterile needles. Avoid sharing needles. People at risk for getting HIV should be tested at least once per year, maybe even more frequently.
HIV Prevention for High-Risk Groups
In the 1990s, HIV infection was the #1 cause of death for those between the ages of 25 to 44. In 2014, HIV was the 8th leading cause of death in those aged 25 to 34 years old and the 9th leading cause of death in those 35 to 44 years of age. Better diagnosis and treatment and increased public awareness are responsible for reduced death rates. There are even newer medications designed to decrease the risk of contracting HIV in those who are exposed. For people who are at high risk of HIV, taking a medication combo known as PrEP decreases the risk of infection. People who have been exposed to HIV can take antiretroviral medication, or post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), to decrease the risk of infection. These medications must be started within 72 hours of the suspected exposure and must be taken for 28 days. They do not guarantee you will not become infected with HIV, but they reduce the risk.
Get Tested and Get Help
There is no cure for HIV, but there are effective treatments that can increase life expectancy. Early diagnosis and treatment of the virus is important to achieve the best possible outcomes. Get tested for HIV, especially if you engage in high-risk behavior. AIDS.gov provides a listing of many government resources for those living with HIV, including locations for testing. The CDC provides similar resources at gettested.cdc.gov or 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636).
Reviewed by Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD