The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight off infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are more than 56,000 new HIV infections in the United States every year and about 1.1 million people are infected and living with the virus. Unfortunately, one in five people with HIV have not been tested and diagnosed. These people are not receiving the treatment they need and may be infecting others.
HIV is transmitted through vaginal, anal or oral sex when the blood, semen or vaginal secretions of an infected partner come in contact with your body. Although rare, you can also get HIV from blood transfusions, or by sharing needles or syringes that are contaminated with infected blood. Additionally, infected mothers may transmit HIV to their babies during pregnancy, delivery or while breastfeeding.
What's the connection between HIV and AIDS?
While HIV causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) not everyone who is HIV-positive has AIDS. It's possible to have HIV for years and not have any signs or symptoms of the disease.
While HIV is not curable, it can be treated and managed with medications known as antivirals. These drugs, which are used in combination, decrease the chances of developing AIDS and other infections, certain cancers, weight loss, dementia and even death.
That said, being HIV-positive is not a death sentence. As HIV medications become more and more effective, people with HIV who are on treatment can expect to live a long time. The earlier HIV is diagnosed, the more successfully it can be managed to maintain a good quality of life for as long as possible. Early detection is critical.
HIV can be asymptomatic (no symptoms) for 10 or more years before the immune system deteriorates, and signs and symptoms become apparent ultimately resulting in AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five (20%) people with HIV are unaware of their infection, and may be unknowingly transmitting the virus to others. That's why getting tested is so important.
Symptoms within two to four weeks of initial exposure to HIV infection, they may include:
- Flu-like symptoms (including headaches, muscle aches, sore throat, fever, chills and night sweats)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rash on the abdomen, arms, legs and face
- Swollen lymph glands
In later years, as immune cells are destroyed by the virus, additional symptoms may include:
- Various mild infections
- Diarrhea or weight loss
- Chronic coughing or difficulty breathing
- Skin rashes or lesions
As HIV spreads and the immune system is continually weakened, symptoms may also include:
- Joint pain
- Mouth sores or gingivitis (gum disease)
- Oral thrush (white lesions in the mouth and on the tongue)
- Other fungal infections on the skin or nails
- Certain types of cancer
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How do people get infected with HIV?
Unprotected anal, genital and oral sex is the most common way people get infected with HIV.
To protect others if you are HIV positive, be sure to use a latex condom every time you have vaginal or anal sex and use a condom or dental dam if you have oral sex, too.
What are some ways that HIV cannot be spread?
You cannot get HIV through everyday contact with people who are infected with the virus or through contact with their urine, sweat, tears, coughs or sneezes. And you cannot get HIV by "dry" kissing an infected person, but we recommend that you avoid deep kissing, especially if there are cuts or sores in the mouth.
As well, you cannot get HIV from mosquitoes, toilet seats, eating utensils, phones, or the like.
What if HIV is untreated?
Left undiagnosed and untreated, HIV infection generally progresses to AIDS within about 10 years of the initial exposure to the virus. By that time, the immune system has been significantly damaged, making it very hard to fight off even mild infections. Signs and symptoms may include:
- Strong flu-like symptoms (including headaches, muscle aches, sore throat, high fever, shaking chills and soaking night sweats)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Widespread skin rashes
- Chronic diarrhea or weight loss
- Chronic coughing or difficulty breathing
- Impaired vision
Without treatment, people infected with HIV are particularly susceptible to a number of viral, bacterial and parasitic infections and cancer. They may develop pneumonia, tuberculosis, liver disease, meningitis (inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord), and non-Hodgkin lymphoma to name a few. Caught early, however, HIV can be managed with treatment. That's why getting tested is so important.
HIV and AIDS
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 56,000 Americans become infected with HIV annually, and some 14,000 people with AIDS die every year in the United States. Remember, if you are tested and treated early, you can focus your energies on living with HIV, rather than being concerned about dying from the disease.
To minimize your risk of becoming infected or spreading the infection to others, get an HIV test if you think you might have been exposed to the virus and continue to use latex condoms. Also, if you use a needle to inject drugs, be sure it's sterile and don't share it with anyone else.or certain patients at high-risk for HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP therapy may be indicated. You should discuss your level of risk with your physician and the advantages of using PrEP therapy in your individual case.
HIV and pregnancy
Pregnant women with HIV may transmit the virus to their baby during pregnancy, delivery or while breastfeeding. By receiving treatment for HIV infection during pregnancy, the risk to their babies is significantly reduced.
If you're pregnant and concerned about HIV, be sure to see a local healthcare provider.
How do I get tested for HIV?
We make getting tested for HIV simple by offering the HIV Test that screens for HIV-1 and HIV-2 antibodies and p24 antigens. It is safe, reliable and easy (no undressing or swabbing required!). You can get a discreet HIV testing kit mailed to your front door, making it easier than ever to take control of your health and get peace of mind.
What HIV test results mean
A negative or normal HIV test result means that the virus was not detected in your blood. But because HIV may not yet be detectable if you get tested too soon after possible exposure to the virus, you'll want to get tested again 4 months after exposure to confirm that you're negative. Repeat testing after seroconversion (the amount of time it takes for HIV to become detectable in the blood) is critical to ensure accurate diagnosis.
A positive or abnormal HIV test result means that you may be infected with HIV. Thanks to antiretroviral therapy that slows down the progression to AIDS, a positive test result is not a death sentence like it was in decades past. HIV infection can be treated and managed to maintain a good quality of life with a nearly normal life expectancy.
If you test positive, we're here to help. You'll have the opportunity to talk with our doctors for a phone consult. They will answer your questions and guide you through your next steps.
Note: If you test positive for HIV, you should not donate blood.
When should I get tested for HIV?
A “testing window” is the period of time between when you contract an infection and when your test is positive. For example, if you had unprotected sex last night and became infected with HIV your test may be negative today. It can take several weeks to test positive. The testing window for each STD is different. In the absence of symptoms our doctors recommend STD testing at 3 weeks post exposure and then again in 3 months.
Is there a cure or treatment for HIV?
While there is no cure for HIV there are very effective drug regimens to control the disease. Once you've been tested and diagnosed with HIV you will need to establish care with a local specialist, (we will help you) and they will discuss what treatment is best for you. Medication will enable you to maintain a good quality of life for as long as possible. Most people start treatment as soon as they test positive.
Viral loads and CD4 counts
Response to treatment is measured by viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood) and CD4 count (the number of white blood cells that fight infection). Viral loads are typically tested every three to four months during therapy, and CD4 counts are generally checked every three to six months.
Ideally, HIV treatment reduces viral load to the point where it's undetectable. When a person with undetectable HIV continues to take treatment exactly as prescribed, it makes transmission of the virus far less likely.
If I know I've been exposed to HIV, what should I do?
If you know you've recently been exposed to HIV, call your doctor or go to the nearest Emergency Room right away. Receiving antiretroviral treatment, or PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) within 72 hours of exposure may prevent you from getting HIV. Specialists recommend starting antiretroviral treatment immediately, ideally within the first 24 hours of exposure.
Note: People infected with HIV may experience flu-like symptoms, what's called Acute Retroviral Syndrome (ARS) within two to four weeks of exposure. This is when the virus is most infectious.
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