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What Is HIV / AIDS?

HIV/AIDS Overview

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a life-threatening disease caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). An estimated 1.1 million Americans are infected with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Approximately one-quarter of those infected are unaware of their status.

HIV damages the immune system and destroys CD4 positive T cells. The purpose of these cells is to help coordinate your body’s ability to fight infections. As HIV progresses, your body's ability to fight infections decreases and you become more susceptible to a wide variety of infections and other diseases. Doctors typically diagnose AIDS when an infected person develops one or more particular infections like pneumonia or tuberculosis, or when your T cell count drops to less than 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Symptoms of HIV/AIDS vary depending on the stage of infection. This is mainly defined by the degree to which your CD4 cell count has dropped. Within two weeks of developing an HIV infection, you may experience flu-like symptoms that can last up to two months. These include:

  • headache
  • fever
  • muscle aches and joint pain
  • body chills
  • sore throat
  • swollen lymph glands

Initial symptoms of an HIV infection may also include night sweats, diarrhea, and skin rash. However, some people don’t show symptoms during the early stage.

HIV Causes

HIV is a sexually transmitted disease. The virus can pass from person to person through contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluids. Having unprotected sex with an infected partner increases your risk of infection.

Other risk factors for HIV/AIDS include having a blood transfusion and sharing needles or syringes with an infected person. Infected mothers may pass the virus to their children during pregnancy or through breast-feeding. Although it remains a controversial topic, some studies suggest that uncircumcised men have a higher risk for HIV, according to the Mayo Clinic.

HIV Diagnosis and Tests

If you’re sexually active or if you think you've been exposed to the virus, talk to your doctor about testing. You can infect others with the virus even if you don't have symptoms of HIV.

 

In order to determine if you have HIV, your doctor may test your blood and look for antibodies specific to HIV. However, that initial round of testing may not detect the virus. It can sometimes take up to one to three months for an HIV antibody test to become positive. If you test negative, doctors may recommend follow-up testing in a couple of months. They may also conduct a test that’s able to identify an HIV protein in newly infected people.

If you're diagnosed with HIV infection, you’ll need to see an infectious disease specialist who has experience treating HIV patients. Your doctor will complete additional tests to determine how severe your infection is. These tests include the following.

CD4 Cell Count

This test determines how many CD4 cells are present in a sample of your blood.

Viral Load

This is a test that tells your doctor the amount of virus in your blood.

Drug Resistance

Some strains of the virus are resistant to certain medications used for the treatment of HIV. This test helps your doctor determine the best combination of drugs to treat your infection.  Simply because you’ve never been treated for HIV before doesn’t mean that the virus you’ve been infected with hasn’t been exposed to antiretroviral drugs before. The virus may have been exposed to antiretroviral drugs in the person who transmitted the virus to you. The initial drug resistance test can allow your doctor to create a treatment plan that will work for you.

HIV/AIDS Treatment

HIV can develop into AIDS in about 10 years if left untreated, according to the Mayo Clinic. There’s no cure for HIV/AIDS, but treatment can slow the progression of the disease and improve your quality of life.

Once you’re diagnosed with the virus doctors prescribe antiretroviral therapy (ART). These medications can stop HIV from multiplying in the body and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others. There are five classes of anti-HIV drugs. Your doctor will likely prescribe multiple drugs to help control the virus. Drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS include:

  • non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs)
  • nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs)
  • protease inhibitors (PIs)
  • entry or fusion inhibitors
  • integrase inhibitors

HIV/AIDS is a chronic condition that requires lifelong treatment. You’ll need periodic blood testing to check your viral load and CD4 count. This helps your doctor determine whether treatment is working. In addition to addressing side effects or complications, this will guide their decisions about future treatments.

HIV/AIDS Complications

Because HIV damages your immune system, you may have more infections that a person who doesn't have the virus. The risk for infection increases as the disease progresses and your CD4 count drops. People with HIV also have an increased risk for certain cancers like lymphoma. Possible complications of HIV/AIDS include:

  • tuberculosis
  • forgetfulness, confusion and other neurological complications
  • depression and anxiety
  • candidiasis
  • pneumonia
  • pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP)

The infection can also directly affect your organs and cause problems with your kidneys, liver, heart, and brain.

HIV/AIDS Prevention

HIV and AIDS are preventable. In order to protect yourself, avoid contact with infected bodily fluids like blood, semen, breast milk, and vaginal secretion. Don't have unprotected sex and don't reuse condoms. Also, never share a needle with anyone. Wear gloves if you're helping someone with an injury or cut to avoid contact with blood.

It’s important that you get tested for the virus and you should encourage your partner to get tested. If you’re pregnant and test positive for HIV/AIDS, talk with your doctor about effective medical interventions that can significantly reduce your baby’s risk of HIV infection.


Content licensed from:

Written by: Valencia Higuera
Published on: Oct 29, 2014
Medically reviewed on: Oct 29, 2014: Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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