What is AIDS?
It's a disease that first surfaced in 1981, when scientists discovered a previously unknown human retrovirus linked to the outbreak of a rare skin cancer among gay men. Researchers named the virus the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and called the disease it caused AIDS -- short for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. The good news is that today AIDs is a controllable illness.
HIV works by attacking your body's immune system, multiplying rapidly and destroying the white blood cells that help fight off disease. These cells, called CD4+T lymphocytes (or T-cells), battle infections caused by bacteria and viruses -- but up to one billion of them may be killed by HIV every day. The virus causes AIDS when it destroys so many T-cells that it ruins your body's defense system, leaving you unable to fight off other illnesses (pneumonia, tuberculosis, or certain cancers, for instance). Complications caused by these opportunistic diseases are what kill people with AIDS, not HIV itself.
In the beginning of the epidemic, you could expect to live an average of only two years after being diagnosed as HIV-positive. For this reason, few diagnoses caused more grief and fear. But today, although there's still no cure for AIDS, experts have new medicines that can keep the virus under control and bring it down to undetectable levels that don't cause transmission. The medications make it harder for the virus to replicate itself, and allow HIV-infected people to live healthy lives.
How would I get AIDS?
HIV is spread through sexual contact (in the form of vaginal, anal, and oral sex) by an exchange of bodily fluids such as blood and semen. HIV-contaminated needles can also transmit it from one person to another during intravenous drug use. And it can be passed from a mother to her fetus in the course of pregnancy or breastfeeding after birth.
If I'm HIV-positive, what will cause me to develop AIDS?
A normal CD4 T-cell count can vary between 500 and 1,000. You're considered to have AIDS if your CD4 count drops below 200 or if you get one of the opportunistic ailments that typically attack people with the disease -- a signal that your immune system is severely depressed. However, some scientists favor calling this condition "Advanced HIV" rather than "AIDS" since the condition can be managed.
Experts also have another blood test that measures viral load (the amount of HIV in your blood) to help determine the degree of infection by the virus.
If you receive no treatment, there's about a 50 percent chance that you'll develop AIDS within 10 years of contracting HIV. New antiretroviral drugs, however, have the ability to slow down the virus's replication in your body and get it down to undetectable levels, allowing you to live a full and healthy life.
What are the symptoms of HIV and AIDS?
In the early stages of HIV infection, you may have no symptoms at all. Or you may have isolated ones that resemble those of flu or a cold, but may last for weeks (for example, a prolonged fever or a sore throat without the other symptoms typical of a cold or flu).
Additional symptoms that can appear during the first months or years of infection are diarrhea, night sweats, nausea and vomiting, fatigue and weakness, severe weight loss or "wasting," headaches, swollen lymph nodes at the back of the neck or in the armpits or groin, muscle aches and joint pain, easy bruising or bleeding, a cough you can't get rid of, and recurrent yeast infections of the mouth (this is known as thrush) or the vagina. If you develop AIDS, the symptoms become those of the various diseases that take advantage of your body's weakened state to attack and invade it. See your doctor right away if you notice anything unusual.
How is HIV diagnosed?
There are three types of HIV tests: antibody tests, antigen/antibody tests, and nucleic acid tests (NAT).
Antibodies are your body's line of defense when it is invaded by a virus or other foreign agent. Antigens are foreign substances that activate your immune system. One, called P24, is produced if you have HIV even before antibodies.
Most of the rapid tests are antibody tests, as is the home self-testing kit. In contrast, an NAT test looks for virus in the blood. Your doctor may want to prescribe an NAT test if you have symptoms of what might be HIV but are testing negative on other tests.
Beware of the home HIV tests you may see advertised. Only one such test, the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test , has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. As with a Covid-19 test, you will be able to see the results in the privacy of your home.
If your test results are negative, yet you think you may be infected, your doctor will probably recommend that you repeat the tests at a later date, when antibodies to HIV have had more time to develop.
If the second test confirms that you're HIV positive, your doctor should offer you counseling and support or put you in touch with a medical professional who can. You should be given a referral to a physician trained in the field, who will treat you for symptoms of HIV and for any related diseases. You'll also have additional blood tests so your doctor can determine how advanced the HIV infection is.
Be prepared to answer questions about your sexual history, as well as any drug use you may have engaged in. You'll need to notify your sexual partners about possible exposure to HIV. State health employees may notify people as well -- your doctor can help you contact your local health department to arrange this.
Are all cases of AIDS caused by the same virus?
In actuality, two different kinds of HIV cause AIDS. HIV-1 occurs in the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere, as well as Asia and most of Africa. Another and somewhat less virulent variety, HIV-2, is found almost exclusively in West Africa. Unlike most viruses, these two are composed of the nucleic acid RNA. They use the RNA to produce new DNA, which then sneaks into the host's chromosome and goes on multiplying.
What are my treatment options?
HIV and AIDS treatment has advanced significantly since the early 1990s. Doctors advise immediate treatment with ART (all therapies are highly active), and a triple drug regimen (known informally as a "drug cocktail") is recommended. The goal is to get the virus to a U=U stage (undetected = uninfectious/untransmittable).
These drugs attack HIV at different stages of its development, suppressing the virus or at least slowing down its destruction of your T-cell lymphocytes and the consequent weakening of your immune system. Your doctor will do periodic blood tests to check both your T-cell count and your viral load (also known as the plasma HIV RNA level) and to monitor the drugs' effectiveness.
The most important thing to remember during treatment is to keep your doctor's appointments and to follow your regimen exactly. If you miss doses, you may actually help the virus mutate and become resistant to drugs. And be sure to tell your doctor about any vitamins and supplements you're taking, because they may interact with your drug regimen.
In general, you may only need to take one pill a day, or you may want to get a Cabenuva injection once a month or once every two months instead.
What else can I do to boost my immune system?
You're likely to develop many nutritional deficiencies, so it may be helpful to take vitamin supplements. One study of HIV-infected men found that the disease progressed more slowly in those who took a multivitamin supplement than in those who didn't. Be sure to talk to your doctor first though, before adding supplements to your diet, since some vitamins interact negatively with AIDS medications.
If you develop AIDs, your weakened immune system may cause you to lose weight. A diet high in protein and total calories can help you keep your weight up. Smoking marijuana, which in some locales is legal for people with AIDS, may ease nausea and help combat AIDS-related wasting.
What are my chances of being infected if I have sex with someone who's HIV-positive?
The best way to keep from infected with HIV is to be on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) or only have sex with people who havev an undetectable viral load. Using a latex condom during sex is also recommended.
Can HIV be spread through casual contact?
No. Sharing a towel or drinking glass or shaking hands with someone won't spread the virus. Theoretically, it could be transmitted in saliva or with a cough or sneeze, since the bodily fluids involved also carry the virus. But no such case of transmission has ever been reported.
What can I do to protect myself from HIV?
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