Here's everything you need to know about HIV and AIDS

Knowing your HIV status is the best way to keep yourself and your partner(s) healthy.
Mert Erdemir
3D medical illustration of virus.
3D medical illustration of virus.

Mohammed Haneefa Nizamudeen/iStock 

There is this misconception that HIV and AIDS are the same thing, which, unfortunately, is still prevalent. This confusion is not only wrong but also leads to stigmatization and discrimination against people living with HIV.

As befits the name, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that affects the body's immune system since it utilizes the CD4 T lymphocytes or "helper T cells," a type of white blood cell that fights infection by triggering the immune system. HIV spreads through the body by using the CD4 cells to multiply, destroying them in the process. AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), on the other hand, occurs when a person is infected with HIV and does not receive treatment. In other words, it is the later stage of HIV infection, and it develops when the immune system of the body has been severely damaged by the virus.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). It can be transmitted through body fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluid, anal mucus, as well as breast milk. But it cannot be passed on by saliva, sweat, or coming into contact with unbroken skin. Therefore, HIV cannot be transmitted by closed-mouth or "social" kissing, hugging, shaking hands, sharing a toilet, or sharing items such as cups, plates, cutlery, or bed linen.

Plus, HIV cannot be transmitted via insects or pets, either.

Having anal or vaginal sex without condoms, sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injection supplies, sharing sex toys, and mother-to-baby transmission are the most common ways people contract HIV.

Here's everything you need to know about HIV and AIDS
The only way to know your HIV status is getting tested.

What are the stages of HIV?

If left untreated, people with HIV can progress from having no symptoms to ill health and eventually late-stage HIV, also known as AIDS.

Stage 1: Acute HIV infection

Within two to four weeks after HIV transmission, some people may experience a short illness often mistaken for the flu. This is called seroconversion illness or primary or acute HIV infection.

The flu-like symptoms may include fever, chills, rash, night sweats, muscle aches, and more. The duration of these symptoms can range from a few days to several weeks, while some people show no symptoms at all.

These symptoms alone are not enough to think that you may have HIV. But if you have such symptoms and think you may have been exposed to HIV, you can consider getting tested.

Stage 2: Chronic HIV infection

During this stage, which is also known as asymptomatic HIV infection or clinical latency, HIV is still active, but it multiplies at very low levels. While some people can live with this stage for 10 to 15 years without showing any symptoms, others can go through it faster.

In the case of starting to take HIV medicines as prescribed, people may never progress into the 3rd stage, AIDS. Otherwise, viral load - the amount of HIV in the blood - increases, and the person eventually moves into the AIDS stage.

Plus, if diagnosed and received treatment during this stage, people can keep their viral load at low or undetectable levels and live a long and healthy life. In this case, the possibility of transmitting HIV to HIV-negative partners through sex also becomes eliminated or very low risk.

Stage 3: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)

This is the late and most severe stage of HIV infection.

As mentioned above, HIV weakens the immune system by attacking the CD4 cells. And one is considered to have progressed to AIDS if the number of the CD4 cells falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (200 cells/mm3).

Many of the severe symptoms and illnesses that occur in this stage are the result of opportunistic infections, which can frequently occur in the body since the immune system gets damaged.

Symptoms of AIDS can include rapid weight loss, muscle aches, joint pain, rash, swelling of the lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck, prolonged diarrhea, sores of the mouth, anus, or genitals, red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin, inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids, and more.

However, thanks to advanced treatment methods, AIDS can be prevented. According to a report by hiv.org, the majority of HIV-positive people in the US who receive treatment do not develop AIDS. Therefore if you have doubts that you may be infected with HIV, getting tested is a good option. The earlier HIV is detected, the sooner you can take HIV medication as prescribed and keep your viral load at undetectable levels.

How to prevent or reduce the risk of HIV infection

There are many ways to prevent and reduce your risk of getting infected with HIV, and education plays a crucial role in this.

Contrary to popular belief, being tested is not something to be afraid of. Even if someone is HIV-positive, the viral load in the blood can be reduced to undetectable levels thanks to current treatment methods; and perhaps this is the best thing to do against HIV stigma.

Here are some basic steps to take for HIV prevention:

1. Using condoms: This is the first and most effective form of protection that comes to mind. It can be used during vaginal and anal sex and for oral sex performed on men. Since HIV can be passed on through pre-cum, vaginal secretions, and from the anus, condoms should not be taken off during any stage of sexual intercourse.

2. Using Lubricants: They can make sex safer by lowering the possibility of vaginal or anal tears brought on by friction or dryness, as well as by lowering the possibility of a condom tearing. But it's important to note that only water-based lubricants should be used with condoms since oil-based ones can weaken the latex in condoms and cause them to break or tear.

3. Not sharing needles, syringes, etc.: In order to prevent the spread of HIV or any other STIs, you should avoid sharing needles and injecting equipment. This is valid for any context, including prescription drug use and getting a tattoo or piercing.

4. PrEP and PEP: People who are HIV-negative but at a high risk of contracting HIV through sexual contact or injecting drugs can take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medicine as a preventative measure. It is available as a tablet and should be taken before engaging in activities that carry the risk of contracting HIV.

Unlike PrEP, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is used after a single high-risk exposure to prevent contracting HIV. One should start taking it as soon as possible, within 72 hours of potential exposure, and continue using it for four weeks.

5. Getting tested: Getting tested regularly and knowing your status is a very effective way to prevent the spread of HIV. According to a study published in the journal Pubmed Central, "some studies have estimated that HIV transmission from people unaware of their infection accounts for about half of the new HIV infections each year." So it's more than crucial to know your HIV status, which can only be known by getting tested.

Treatment of HIV

Here comes the part on which much research has been and is being conducted. Contrary to the 1980s' "AIDS crisis," when there were few treatments available, today, having HIV does not mean that it's the end of the world. Even though there is no definite cure for HIV yet, there are effective medicines that can suppress the infection.

Apart from the mentioned medicines, PrEP and PEP, there are medicines to be used after being diagnosed with HIV. The currently available treatment for HIV is antiretroviral therapy (ART), which involves taking a combination of medications daily. The treatment prevents the virus from multiplying and reduces the amount of HIV in the blood to undetectable levels, preventing AIDS.

Moreover, if an HIV-positive person's viral load has stayed undetectable for six months or more, the virus becomes untransmittable. This is also called undetectable=untransmittable (U=U).

In short, don't be afraid of knowing your HIV status. If you think you've been exposed to HIV, get tested.

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