Signs & Symptoms of HIV and AIDS

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Sexual Health: A Simple Guide to HIV and AIDS

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) affects over a million people in the United States. This infection slowly destroys the body’s immune system and during the advanced stages it often develops into the incurable acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). However, someone who tests positive for HIV does not necessarily have AIDS. According to the CDC, there are around 50,000 new infections in the United States each year and over one million total infected people. Of the infected, around 20% do not know they have the disease.

Although HIV remains a serious problem, new treatment options are helping those with HIV/AIDS to live healthier, longer lives. If the disease is detected and treated early enough, the infected person’s life expectancy is nearly identical to someone with HIV.

How can you get HIV?

The HIV virus is passed from person to person through body fluids such as:

  • Blood
  • Semen and vaginal fluids
  • Breast milk

You can become infected with HIV through:

  • Sexual intercourse – vaginal, anal, and oral sex – with an infected person (more common)
  • Sharing needles and syringes with someone who is infected, which typically occurs during drug use (more common)
  • Mother-to-child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding (more common)
  • Blood transfusion from a donor with HIV (very unlikely due to blood testing)
  • Sharing a razor or toothbrush with an infected person (less common)

There are many urban legends surrounding the transmission of HIV, so it is important to dispel a few of these myths. Though this list is certainly not exhaustive, you cannot get HIV from:

  • Sharing cups, utensils, telephones towels, bedding, or toilet seats
  • Kissing, hugging or holding hands with someone who has the virus
  • Giving blood
  • Using swimming pools or water fountains

Who is most at risk of getting HIV?

While anyone can become HIV infected, certain groups who engage in specific activities and lifestyles are more at risk. You are more likely to get HIV if you:

  • Engage in unprotected sex
  • Have genital ulcers
  • Have one or more sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as gonorrhea or chlamydia
  • Use intravenous drugs
  • Are born to a HIV infected mother
  • Are an uncircumcised male

According to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010, men who have sex with men (MSM) and racial and ethnic minorities are also at high risk. In 2010, MSM represented 63% of all new HIV infections while making up 2% of the population. African Americans and Hispanics represented 65% of new infections while making up around 30% of the total population.

What are the symptoms of HIV for men and women?

You may have HIV for a long time before you begin to experience the effects of the disease. There are cases where infected individuals went 10 years or more without experiencing any symptoms. In some cases, you may feel extremely sick with a flu-like symptom after initially getting the virus and then feel better within a few weeks. The signs of HIV are often similar to other types of common illnesses, including the flu. Symptoms include:

  • Sore throat and mouth ulcers or thrush
  • Fever, chills and night sweats
  • Fatigue, headaches and muscle aches,
  • Swollen glands and lymph nodes
  • Diarrhea and weight loss

Who should get tested for HIV?

Those in high risk groups should be screened or tested for HIV at least once a year. These groups include pregnant women, those who have sex with multiple partners, people who use needles and syringes for drugs or are exposed to blood and other body fluids of an infected person. Gay and bisexual men and black and latino men and women are also at higher risk of infection and may want to consider annual testing if they are sexually active and engaging in sexual intercourse with new or multiple partners.

What’s an HIV DNA Test? Does it Work?

The HIV DNA test is designed to diagnose an infection earlier than a traditional test for HIV that tests for antibodies. Once infected, the body can take between 3 to 6 months to produce enough antibodies for that test to be effective. The DNA test, however, directly tests for HIV, and so it can detect it much earlier. The HIV DNA test does work, but it prone to false positives and is not as widely offered as the antibody test.

How is HIV Treated and can it be Cured?

Like other viral sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), no cure currently exists for HIV. However, over the years drugs have been developed to help slow the progress and growth of the virus, and the current treatment is known as high active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). HAART uses a combination of anti-HIV drugs called inhibitors to block the infection and to keep it from spreading.

What Complications can arise if HIV is left untreated?

If it is not treated, HIV will weaken your immune system and eventually lead to AIDS. Those with AIDS can experience infections from parasites, fungi, and viruses that would normally be controlled by a strong immune system. People with AIDS are also at higher risk of various forms of cancer, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and esophagitis. Since HIV can be controlled when detected and treated early, it must not be left untreated.

More Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Myths about HIV and AIDS

US Department of Health & Human Services

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