Did You Know? HIV 101

What is HIV?

HIV stands for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This is a virus that people can become infected with and pass on to other people. When someone becomes infected with HIV it begins to attack his or her immune system by destroying T-cells which are the body’s defense against illness. A person can be HIV positive for many years and never develop symptoms. A person with HIV can develop AIDS especially if they are not accessing medical care and treatment.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. An HIV positive person is said to have AIDS when they develop one of several opportunistic infections or he or she has a CD4 lymphocyte count of less than 200. Common viruses, bacteria, protozoa or fungi that a normal immune system combats easily cause these infections. In a weakened immune system, these organisms can cause severe, life-threatening illnesses.


Who does HIV affect?

AIDS does not discriminate. Anyone of any sexual orientation, any gender, any age and any ethnic background may become infected.


How exactly is HIV spread?

The HIV virus is present in the sexual fluids (vaginal secretions, semen) and blood of infected people. It can also be in the breast milk of infected women. Contact with any of these fluids can expose you to the HIV virus. There is no evidence of HIV transmission through casual contact with an infected person.

HIV is spread through unprotected/unsafe (without condoms) vaginal, oral or anal sexual intercourse. Transmission is possible from male to male, male to female, female to male and female to female. Another way the virus is spread is through the sharing of injection drug equipment. 

Mothers can also transmit HIV prior to birth, during birth or through breast milk. If a woman finds out she is HIV positive during pregnancy, she runs a 25% chance that her baby will be born infected. However, with the use of AZT and/or protease inhibitors during pregnancy, the risk of infecting her baby drops to 8% or less.

HIV can be spread through infected blood or blood products. All blood donated in the United States is tested for HIV, however a small risk remains due to the “window period” which is when a person is infected, but has a negative HIV test because they haven’t yet developed HIV antibodies that show up on a test. It is estimated that one in 450,000 to one in 660,000 donations per year are infectious for HIV but are not detected by current antibody screening tests.

Healthcare workers can also become infected with HIV through a deep needle stick or surgical injuries received while working with HIV infected patients.


How is HIV not spread?

Studies conducted with families of people with AIDS confirm that hugging, touching, social kissing, sharing kitchen utensils and bathroom facilities, or even sleeping together in the same bed as long as there is no exchange of the aforementioned bodily fluids, are all safe activities.

What is “risky activity?”

A risky activity is anything that makes it possible for the virus to pass from one person to another. Sexual intercourse without a condom is risky because the virus, which is present in an infected person’s sexual fluids, can pass directly into the body of their partner. 

Contact with an infected person’s blood is risky if it allows the virus to pass into another person’s body through cuts or grazes in their skin. This includes being pricked by, or injected with a needle or syringe already used by someone else.


How quickly after possible HIV exposure should I get tested?

Most HIV tests are antibody tests that measure the antibodies your body makes against HIV. It can take some time for the immune system to produce enough antibodies for the antibody test to detect and this time period can vary from person to person. This time period is commonly referred to as the “window period”. Most people will develop detectable antibodies within 2 to 8 weeks (the average is 25 days). Even so, there is a chance that some individuals will take longer to develop detectable antibodies. Therefore, if the initial negative HIV test was conducted within the first 3 months after possible exposure, repeat testing should be considered >3 months after the exposure occurred to account for the possibility of a false-negative result. Ninety seven percent will develop antibodies in the first 3 months following the time of their infection. In very rare cases, it can take up to 6 months to develop antibodies to HIV.

Another type of test is an RNA test, which detects the HIV virus directly. The time between HIV infection and RNA detection is 9-11 days. These tests, which are more costly and used less often than antibody tests, are used in some parts of the United States.

It is also important that you are not at risk for further exposure to HIV during this time period. Most importantly you should continue to practice safe sex and not share needles.


What if I test positive for HIV?

Although HIV can’t be cured with current medical options, it can be managed. This means the virus can be kept from rapidly growing in the body so that it doesn’t damage the immune system quickly. The first step you should take is to see a doctor, even if you do not feel sick. You should find a doctor who has experience treating HIV. The Westbrook Clinics in Harlingen and Corpus have provided compassionate treatment and care for thousands of men and women living with HIV and can help you regardless of whether you have insurance or not.

There are now many drugs to treat HIV infection and help you maintain your health. These drugs are called anti-retroviral and protease inhibitors. A combination of these drugs is referred to as a drug cocktail. Many people also get an antibiotic, which will prevent pneumonia. You should also try to stop smoking cigarettes, drinking too much alcohol and using illegal drugs (such as cocaine). All of these can weaken your immune system.


What are the complications of untreated HIV infections?

When the virus has done a lot of damage to the immune system, the end result is AIDS. This is when the immune system is so worn down it isn’t able to fight off common diseases and disorders. The T-cell count will drop to below 200, the viral load will increase to over 50,000, and the person will start developing illnesses that are very hard to get rid of. They may get pneumonia, thrush (yeast infections of the mouth, throat, skin or vagina) or a severe flu. They may lose a lot of weight and become extremely tired. They may develop a persistent cough and shortness of breath. Stomach pain and severe diarrhea is also common for a person with AIDS. Old, untreated infections such as TB (tuberculosis), syphilis or herpes can take advantage of a weakened immune system and spread throughout the body, leading to severe illness and death.  


What are the first symptoms of HIV infection?

The only way to know for sure whether you are infected with HIV is to have an HIV antibody test. The symptoms of initial HIV infection are not very specific. If a person is infected, a few weeks after infection some people experience flu-like illness. They may have a sore throat, swollen glands, medium to high-grade fever, rashes, and feel tired. Only one in five people experience symptoms serious enough to require a doctor’s attention. They will usually recover from this and not know that they are HIV-positive. Several years after infection a person may experience symptoms of particular illnesses and cancers. These are the result of the infected person’s immune system being damaged by HIV to the point where it is no longer able to fight off these opportunistic infections.


If I am diagnosed with HIV, can a healthcare provider tell who gave me the infection?

No. HIV diagnostic tests cannot determine who passed the infection to the negative partner.


If I am diagnosed with HIV, can I tell when I got it?

In general, NO. A skilled healthcare provider can generally estimate how long you have been infected by looking at the levels of virus in your body, your CD4 (T-cell) count, and whether or not you have had any opportunistic infections. If you are currently suffering from symptoms of acute HIV infection, a healthcare provider can usually conclude that infection occurred within the past few weeks.


Does being diagnosed with HIV mean that I have AIDS?

Not necessarily. A positive HIV test result means only that you are infected with the virus that causes AIDS – it doesn’t mean that you have AIDS right now. But if you don’t get treated for your HIV disease, it will damage your immune system and can progress to AIDS.  


Am I going to die of AIDS?

While complications from HIV infection remain a possibility, current treatments and medications are giving people with HIV a positive prognosis and near-normal life-span. This makes patients living with HIV vulnerable to the same health conditions that affect all people as they age. This is why it is important to maintain good health throughout your life.


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