In the past HIV/AIDS was considered to be a deadly disease. Medical research has helped health care providers understand HIV and improve available treatments. HIV/AIDS can now be treated with medicine, although chronic infections are still a serious problem. About 1 out of every 4 young people with HIV doesn’t know that they have it.
What are HIV and AIDS?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is the virus which, when untreated, results in an AIDS diagnosis, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The virus attacks the body’s immune system, especially white blood cells called T-cells. Your immune system is what fights against infections to keep your body healthy and T-cells play a key role in keeping a person protected from infections. If your immune system is weakened, it can’t protect your body and you can easily get sick.
Who gets HIV/AIDS?
Anyone who has unprotected sex (without a condom) and/or shares needles or injection drug equipment with an infected person is at risk for getting the HIV virus. Also, babies can be born with the virus if their mother is infected. In the past, people also got infected from unscreened blood transfusions, but today donated blood is screened more efficiently.
Does everyone who has HIV get AIDS?
Not all people with HIV get AIDS. However, if a person’s T-cell numbers drop and the amount of virus in the blood stream rises (viral load), the immune system can become too weak to fight off infections, and they are considered to have AIDS. It is then possible to get sick with diseases that do not usually affect other people. One of these diseases is Kaposi Sarcoma (KS), a rare type of skin cancer. Another is a type of pneumonia called Pneumocystis Pneumonia (PCP). These diseases can be treated and a person’s T-cells and viral load can return to healthier levels with the right types of medication, although the AIDS diagnosis stays with them even when healthy.
How is HIV spread?
HIV is found and can be passed from an infected person to another person through blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk. People can most easily be exposed to HIV by having anal, vaginal, and/or in some cases oral sex without using a condom or by using a condom incorrectly. This is especially possible when one partner has an open sore or irritation (like the kinds we can get from sexually transmitted infections like herpes or syphilis) or through small tears in the vagina and anus from vaginal or anal intercourse. Mothers living with HIV can pass the virus to their babies, during birth and also during breastfeeding. HIV is also spread when sharing needles or injection drug equipment with an infected person.
HIV can only be spread through intimate contact with one or more of the fluids discussed above.
HIV is not spread by touching, hugging, or shaking hands with an infected person. It is not spread by coughing, sneezing, sharing glasses and dishes, touching toilets or doorknobs. Pets and biting insects, such as mosquitoes, do not spread the virus. Donating blood does not spread HIV either. This is because a new needle is used for each donor, so you never come in contact with another person’s blood.
What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?
Some people may get an illness within 6 weeks of HIV infection. This early period in the infection may come with some of the following symptoms:
- Swollen glands
- Aching joints and muscles
- Sore throat
Since these symptoms are similar to the flu, HIV may go unnoticed. Therefore, it is important to tell your health care provider if you don’t use condoms during sex and/or if you share needles. That’s a good reason to get tested for HIV!
When HIV progresses to AIDS, a person may have any of the following symptoms:
- Fever lasting longer than 1 month
- Weight loss
- Extreme tiredness
- Diarrhea for longer than 1 month
- Swollen lymph glands
- Unclear thinking
- No sense of balance
What should I do if I think I have HIV or AIDS?
If you think you are infected with HIV, or have been exposed to someone whom you suspect or know to be HIV positive, or if you have symptoms, get tested and make an appointment with your health care provider right away. The earlier you get tested the sooner you can start medicine to control the virus. Getting treated early can slow down the progress of the HIV infection and may even prevent you from getting AIDS. Knowing if you are HIV positive or not will also help you make decisions about protecting yourself and others.
How is HIV diagnosed?
HIV is diagnosed using 2 main tests:
- Blood test (4th generation immunoassay) – This type of blood test takes about 1-2 weeks to get the results. Blood is drawn once from the arm and sent to the lab to be treated. A 4th generation test can find the HIV virus as soon as 2 weeks after infection, although if you have had risk/exposure to HIV within that window of time, a retest in 2-3 months is recommended to get a definite answer. Some medical providers use an earlier version of HIV blood test that takes longer to detect HIV after infection (a window period of about 6-8 weeks). If you have had a recent risk/exposure, it is important to talk to your provider or tester about which HIV blood test they offer.
- Rapid tests (finger stick test) – This test can be done in the office and results will come back the same day. The tester will prick your fingertip and collect a droplet of blood, which the tester will mix in a solution. A test panel sits in the solution and gives a result in 20 minutes. A rapid HIV test will be able to detect the HIV virus about 8 weeks after infection, though sometimes it can take a little longer to be detectable, so if you have had newer risk in the last 2-8 weeks, talk to your provider about getting a 4th generation blood test instead. If a rapid HIV test is positive, your tester or doctor will do a standard (4th generation) blood test to confirm that you are HIV positive.
- Another option that may be a good fit for you is home testing. Some drug stores sell HIV tests that can be performed at home. They take a sample either from a finger stick or the mouth. If they are positive, the testing needs to be confirmed with a standard blood test.
What does a “false negative” test result mean?
If you are tested too soon after being exposed to HIV, it is possible that you can get a “false negative.” This is because it can take between 2 and 12 weeks after infection for the HIV test to become positive, depending on the type of test used. It is usually recommended that you have the test repeated after 3 months to make sure that you are truly negative.
What about sex partners?
If you find out that you are HIV positive, you can help prevent the spread of HIV by telling anyone that you have had sex with or anyone you have ever shared needles with (since your last negative HIV test). In doing so, they can get tested and treated as soon as possible. If you feel that you can’t tell these people or would like help telling them, ask your health care provider for advice. They can let people know confidentially that they may have been exposed
How is HIV/AIDS treated?
Right now, there is no cure for HIV infection or AIDS. It is a chronic illness and the virus stays in your body for your lifetime. The virus has been treated with a combination of different drugs which, when taken together at the same time every day without missing doses, work to keep the virus quiet so the immune system can stay strong. Following your doctor’s treatment plan is extremely important. Your health care provider may also tell you to eat healthy foods, exercise, and lower any stress in your life. All these factors work together to keep you healthy and feeling good.
How can I protect myself from getting HIV?
- The best way to avoid getting HIV is to not have sex and not share needles. If you do decide to have sex, you should always practice safe sex, using a new condom each time. Condoms come in different textures, sizes, colors and even flavors so there are plenty of options to try out!
- Limit the number of sexual partners that you have. If you and your partner are sexually active, you can make sure that both of you are tested and treated for other STIs (if necessary).
- Make sure you use a condom correctly every time you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Using condoms, female condoms, finger cots and dental dams when having sex lowers your risk for getting HIV and other STIs. Be sure to check that the condom or other product you’re using is not expired, punctured, or otherwise damaged – if it is, throw it away and use a fresh one. It’s a good idea to talk to your health care provider about testing/prevention even if you use condoms every time you have sex.
- Use sterile needles if you plan on getting a tattoo or body piercing or if you use IV drugs. This really does lower your risk of getting HIV. Don’t use anything that pierces your skin unless you are sure it has been fully sterilized. In Massachusetts and some other states, people who are 18 or older and use injection drugs can go to a local needle excange to get clean syringes and other supplies so they do not have to share or reuse their equipment.
- Don’t share personal items such as razors and toothbrushes. These items could have blood on them which can carry the virus (if the blood is from someone who happens to be HIV positive).
- High risk individuals who frequently have condomless sex and/or use itnravenous drugs can take a pill to help prevent HIV. This is called pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP. If you fit this category, talk with your doctor about this option.
- Get tested! You can make sure that both you and your partner get tested for HIV before you have sex. Many health care providers’ offices, hospitals, and clinics offer HIV testing at a low cost or for free. If your test is positive, you might feel scared – talking with your health care provider or HIV tester as soon as possible to learn about treatment is a good place to start. Early treatment improves a person’s health and prevents some of the damage to the immune system that untreated HIV can cause. There are also safe environments like support groups to find help working through your feelings and getting answers to your questions.