HIV and AIDS are not an easy thing to talk about. However, knowing the facts is critical, especially if you’re in a high risk group. Here are the important facts you should know about HIV and AIDS.
What is HIV?
The acronym “HIV” stands for “Human Immunodeficiency Virus”. These words are a medical term that refers to a virus that only affects humans which attacks and weakens the immune system.
HIV is quite similar to more typical viruses like a cold or the flu. The main difference between these viruses and HIV is that with common viruses like a cold or flu, your immune system will fight the infection and the virus will clear from your body completely. With HIV, the immune system does not fight off the infection and to this point in science, an HIV infected person will have it for the rest of their life.
The HIV virus can hide in your cells attacking your immune system cells, also called T-cells. T-cells are an essential component of the human immune system and your body must have these cells in order to fight off diseases and infections. The HIV cells infiltrate T-cells, making copies of itself and then kills the T-cells.
What is AIDS?
Eventually, the HIV infection can kill off enough of the T-cells in an infected person to leave them highly vulnerable to many other infections and diseases. At this stage it is called the AIDS virus. AIDS stands for “Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome”. It is different from HIV in that the syndrome part reflects that the infected person is at the stage of showing symptoms and complications of the infection.
Once infected, most people typically do not exhibit symptoms. A symptom free period can last for many months to over 10 years. However, some do begin to show symptoms, such as flu like symptoms, within a few weeks or as little as a few days of being infected. These symptoms can include:
- Enlarged Lymph Nodes
- Unexplained Weight Loss
- Night Sweats
- Bruising Easily
- Sore Throat
- Muscle Aches
- Unexplained Bleeding
- Yeast Infections
- Recurring Rashes
- Short Term Memory Issues
- Herpes Infection Sores (genital and mouth)
Causes and Transmission
HIV is transmitted through semen, blood and vaginal fluids. The virus can transmit from person to person through unprotected sexual activity, including oral, anal or vaginal. In addition, drug users who share needles are also at risk. The virus can also be transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy. An infected mother can also transmit HIV to her baby during breastfeeding. In rare cases, HIV can be transmitted through blood transfusions and organ transplantation. Also rare, is hospital transmission of HIV, as a person can be infected in a hospital setting through accidental needle pricks or through contact with bodily fluids from an infected person.
HIV cannot be transmitted through any type of casual contact such as touching, hugging, food preparation, bedding, towels, swimming pools, spas or telephones. Kissing is also unlikely to transmit the infection unless sores or cuts are present in the mouth.
You can protect yourself from being infected with HIV by avoiding high risk activities, including unprotected sexual activity with persons who may be infected or sharing needles. The use of condoms during sex can also offer protection from HIV infection.
Diagnosis and Testing
Diagnosis of HIV is done through testing of saliva or blood. The antibodies of the virus will show up during this testing. However, it can be several months for these antibodies to be detectable with testing.
New testing technology is available that tests for the HIV antigen, which is a protein the virus produces as soon as infection happens.
Once HIV infection is determined, there are other tests that are typically done to help determine the stage of infection a patient is at. These tests include a viral load test, CD4 count and drug resistance test. The CD4 count test determines how many CD4 cells a person has. It can be anywhere from 500 to over 1000 in healthy people. In HIV/AIDS patients, it can be in the low hundreds.
The viral load test is used to determine how much of the virus is present in the blood. The drug resistance test is used to determine what particular strain of HIV a patient has. This helps determine the appropriate drugs for treatment. Depending on your health and symptoms, other tests may be ordered to check for other STD’s, other infections and organ damage.
While there is no cure for HIV/AIDS currently, treatment with a combination of drugs can control the virus effectively. There is a class of drugs called anti-HIV drugs which are designed to block the virus. Patients are typically treated with a combination of several of these drugs to help avoid the infection becoming resistant to a particular anti-HIV drug.
Some common anti-HIV drugs are:
NNRTI’s – NNRTI stands for Non-Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors. These drugs are used to disable the proteins that the virus requires in order to keep copying itself. Some common NNRTI’s include Sustiva, Viramune and Intelence.
NRTI’s – NRTI stands for Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors and these drugs are faulty copies of the components that the virus needs in order to keep replicating itself. Common drug names of NRTI’s include Truvada, Combivir and Ziagen.
PI’s – PI stands for Protease Inhibitor. These drugs are used to disable protease in the system, helping to stop the virus from replicating itself. Common drug names include Lexiva, Norvir, Prezista and Reyataz.
Fusion Inhibitors – These drugs work to stop HIV from entering CD4 cells. Common drug names include Fuzeon and Selzentry.
Integrase Inhibitors – These drugs work to disable the integrase protein, which the virus uses to penetrate and insert its genetic material into cells.
Treatment of the virus with anti-HIV drugs can begin as soon as infection is determined. HIV treatment is critical and recommended for anyone who is infected and experiencing symptoms of the infection. Even if a patient exhibits no symptoms but is pregnant, has Hepatitis B or has another infection, treatment should begin as soon as possible.
The drug regimen that doctors recommend for effective treatment of HIV can be difficult to adhere to perfectly. The anti-HIV drugs can cause side effects including nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, heart issues, shortness of breath, rashes and bone problems.
With an HIV infection, a patient will require treatment monitoring and blood tests several times yearly. Effective anti-HIV drug treatments can reduce the viral load of HIV in the blood to almost undetectable levels. However, do note that HIV can still be transmitted at this stage.