HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This is the virus that causes AIDS. When HIV gets into a person’s body, their immune systems create substances called antibodies. When you get an HIV test, it actually looks for these antibodies. If you have them, you are HIV-positive. Being HIV-positive does not mean you have AIDS, but it may mean that you need to see your doctor on a regular basis, take anti-HIV medications and always practice safer sex.
A person can be HIV-positive for many years without becoming sick. Even when healthy, there is a possibility of transmitting the virus on to another person. You cannot tell by someone’s appearance if they have HIV or not.
HIV, like other viruses, does not have the ability to reproduce on its own. In order to reproduce, it invades cells of the immune system and uses their replication abilities to reproduce. Over time, this damages the immune system and creates opportunities for many diseases.
If you can answer yes to any of the following questions, you may be at risk for HIV and should be tested.
- Have I ever had sex (oral, vaginal or anal) without a condom?
- Has my partner ever had sex without a condom?
- Have I ever shared needles for using drugs, tattooing, piercing or any other reason? Has my partner?
If you test negative for HIV infection but have participated in risky behaviors within the last six months, then you should be tested again. If you test negative after at least six months since any risk behavior, you can feel certain that you are HIV-negative. However, if you continue to participate in risky behaviors, you should be re-tested approximately twice a year.
Free or low cost HIV testing is available in most areas. For information about testing in your area, contact your local health department or call one of the numbers in the “Helpful Numbers” section of this document.
Many people do not have any symptoms when they first become infected with HIV. Some people, however, have a flu-like illness within a month or two after exposure to the virus. This illness, called acute retroviral syndrome, may include:
- Enlarged lymph nodes (glands of the immune system easily felt in the neck and groin)
These symptoms usually disappear within a week to a month and are often mistaken for those of another viral infection. During this period, people are very infectious, and HIV is present in large amounts in genital fluids.
More persistent or severe symptoms may not appear for 10 years or more after HIV first enters the body in adults, or within two years in children born with HIV infection. This period of “asymptomatic” infection is highly individual. Some people may begin to have symptoms within a few months, while others may be symptom-free for more than 10 years.
Anti-HIV medications, called antiretrovirals, are recommended for those living with HIV who have symptoms, a high viral load or a low CD4 count. Discussing all of these things with a medical provider you trust may help you make a decision about treatment.
Antiretrovirals are designed to stop HIV from being able to replicate in your body. If the virus cannot replicate, the amount of virus begins to decrease in your body, and the immune system may begin to get healthier again. The medications only work when taken correctly, so it’s important to get educated about them before you begin therapy.
Some people decide to not take medications or to take an alternative approach to their care. If you would like to explore more about alternative methods of treatment, you may want to seek out a physician who is knowledgeable and open to alternative methods.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and is the result of HIV infection. When a person has AIDS, their body may be at risk for acquiring many infections. Some bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites that once seemed harmless may cause serious illness, or even death, when a person has AIDS.
Only a medical professional can diagnose a person with AIDS. Blood tests and physical examinations must be performed in order to make the diagnosis. For a detailed definition of AIDS, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov.
You don’t actually get AIDS. If you are infected with HIV, you may develop AIDS. AIDS is a result of HIV infection. HIV is transmitted through intimate physical or sexual contact with a person who is infected, through blood-to-blood contact with a person who is infected, and a mother can pass the virus to her baby during labor, delivery or breastfeeding.
HIV is found in the blood, semen, vaginal secretions and breast milk of those with the virus. If these fluids have contact with broken skin, mucous membranes or are inserted into the body with a needle, HIV transmission can occur.
A latex condom used consistently and correctly during each sexual act may help prevent HIV infection. You should always wear latex gloves when cleaning up any spilled bodily fluids, and you should always use a clean or new needle for injecting prescribed or non-prescribed drugs. Sharing needles for any reason (tattooing, piercing, drug use) is extremely risky.
Medications to treat HIV disease have steadily improved over time. It is impossible to determine how long a person may live after being infected with HIV or even after being diagnosed with AIDS. Each person’s body is very unique.
It is recommended that you seek out a physician who specializes in HIV/AIDS care, educate yourself as much as possible and develop a support system of family, friends and/or care providers. Doing these things, and taking all medications exactly as prescribed may help you live a better and longer life.
Viral load is simply how much virus is in the blood stream. Your doctor will order this blood test several times per year to determine if you should take anti-HIV medications or if your medications are working. It may be a good idea for you to track this number for yourself, too.
When taking anti-HIV medications, some people achieve very low levels of HIV in their blood and have “undetectable” viral loads. This does not mean that the virus is not still in a person’s body, or that the viral load is “undetectable” in other bodily fluids. A person with an undetectable viral load can still pass HIV to another person through sexual behavior or unsafe drug use.
A CD4 cell, or T-cell, is a part of the immune system. This cell assists the immune system in mounting attacks against invaders such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. Without healthy CD4 cells, the immune system is not as likely to be successful in fighting illness. As HIV damages the immune system, the number of CD4 cells begins to decline. A doctor will monitor this level over time to look for changes. It may be a good idea for you to track this number for yourself, too.