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Causes, Symptoms & Prevention: Everything You Need To Know About HIV And AIDS

Causes, Symptoms & Prevention: Everything You Need To Know About HIV And AIDS

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, a virus that attacks the cells in your immune system called the CD4 cells. CD4 are white blood cells that move around the body and detect faults and anomalies. Since HIV targets these cells, it reduces your body's ability to protect itself and makes it susceptible to infections and cancers that wouldn't target a healthy body - called opportunistic infections.


HIV is a lifelong infection and infected people may carry this disease for years without any symptoms. Receiving treatment and managing the disease can prevent it from reaching a severe level and reduce the risk of transmission. This happens as the treatment can lower the amount of HIV in your blood, so much so that it doesn't even show up on a test thus making it impossible to transmit the disease.


AIDS or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome is the most advanced stage of HIV. Once HIV develops into AIDS, your body is at great risk. Without treatment, HIV can become AIDS as the immune system wears down with a super low number of CD4 cells. Over time, it can be fatal. However, advances in treatment are making sure that HIV develops to AIDS in a lesser number of people. 


Causes


Stages


Symptoms


When To Get Tested


Treatment


Prevention


Living With HIV AIDS


How To Talk To People In Your Condition


Dating A HIV Person


Causes Of HIV/AIDS


HIV is caused by a virus. It is spread by the exchange of bodily fluids through sexual contact, blood transfusion, from mother to child during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. To become infected, the blood, semen or vaginal secretions of the infected person must enter your body. This can happen by:


  1. Having sex: The infection can spread if you have vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone whose blood, semen or vaginal secretions enter your body. The virus can also enter your body through mouth sores or small tears that may develop in rectum and vagina while having sex.

  2. Blood transfusion: There have been cases where the virus has been transmitted through the transfusion of infected blood. Blood supply is now screened for HIV before transfusion.

  3. Sharing needles: Sharing needles or syringes with people infected with HIV (or in some cases, hepatitis) puts you at high risk. 

  4. Pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding: Mothers who are infected with the virus can pass it on their babies. However, HIV-positive mothers can now get treated during the pregnancy which significantly lowers the risk of transmission to their babies.


It is important to remember that HIV cannot spread through ordinary contact which means that you cannot be infected by HIV or AIDS by hugging, kissing, dancing or being in the vicinity of an infected person. HIV cannot be spread through air, water or insect bites.


How does HIV become AIDS?


HIV destroys CD4 cells which play a major role in helping your body fight diseases. The fewer CD4 cells you have, the weaker your immune system becomes. You can have an HIV infection for years before it turns into AIDS. AIDS is diagnosed when the CD4 cell count falls below 200 or you have an AIDS-defining complication.


Stages Of HIV 


There are three stages of HIV infection:


1. Acute HIV Infection


The earliest stage of HIV infection develops within 2 to 4 weeks after the infection generally. In this period, people develop flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache and rashes while the HIV multiplies and spreads rapidly throughout the body. The virus then attacks and destroys the infection-fighting CD4 cells of the immune system. In this stage, the level of HIV in the blood is extremely high, increasing the change of transmission greatly.


2. Chronic HIV Infection


The chronic HIV infection, which happens to be the second stage, is also called asymptomatic HIV infection or clinical latency. In this stage, HIV does continue to multiply but at a lower level. People with this stage of the infection may not show any symptoms but they can still spread it to others. Without treatment, chronic HIV infection can advance to AIDS in 10 years or longer though it may advance in some people faster.


3. AIDS


AIDS is the most severe stage of the infection. Since HIV severely damages your immune system, the body can't fight off the opportunistic infections. In simpler words, opportunist infections are infections and related cancers that occur more frequently in people with weakened immune systems than in people with healthy immune systems. People with HIV are diagnosed with AIDS if the count of CD4 is less than 200 cells/mm3 or if they are diagnosed with certain opportunistic infections. Without treatment, people with AIDS can survive for typically 3 years only.


Symptoms Of HIV And AIDS


There are various symptoms of HIV and AIDS depending on the phase of infection.


Acute HIV (Primary Infection)


Within a month or two of the virus entering the body, most people infected with HIV develop flu-like symptoms. They are:


  • Fever and headaches

  • Rashes

  • Joint pains and muscle aches

  • Sore throat

  • Mouth sores and ulcers

  • Swollen lymph glands


Sometimes the symptoms are so mild, they're not even noticeable. However, it is at this point that the virus in your bloodstream is at the highest. The infection spreads most easily during this stage.


Chronic HIV (Clinical Latent Infection)


As the virus continues to multiply, there may be chronic mild infections of signs such as:


  • Fatigue

  • Fever

  • Swollen lymph nodes — often one of the first signs of HIV infection

  • Diarrhoea

  • Weight loss

  • Oral yeast infection 

  • Shingles


AIDS


With the newly available treatments, most people with HIV don't develop AIDS. However, when AIDS does develop, your immune system is so severely damaged that you develop opportunistic cancers and infections as mentioned above. Some of the symptoms of these infections are:  


  • Night sweats

  • Recurring fever

  • Persistent white spots or unusual lesions on your tongue or in your mouth

  • Persistent, unexplained fatigue

  • Chronic diarrhoea

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Skin rashes


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When Should You Get Tested For HIV?


Anybody who is sexually active or has had multiple sex partners must get themselves tested regularly for HIV. The people at the highest risk are:


  1. People who have unprotected sex: Anal sex is riskier than vaginal sex. Your risk also increases if you have multiple sexual partners. That's why you must use a condom every time you have sex. 

  2. People who have STIs: Many STIs result in open sores on your genital area. These sores are a gateway for HIV to enter your body.

  3. People who use intravenous drugs: People who use intravenous drugs end up sharing needles and syringes exposing them to HIV.

  4. Men who are uncircumcised: Studies have shown that men who aren't circumcised increase the risk of transmission.


How Do You Get Treated For HIV And AIDS?


Antiretroviral therapy or ART is the treatment for HIV infection. People on ART take a combination of HIV medicines called an HIV treatment regime. ART is medically recommended for everyone who has HIV. ART can only help people with HIV live longer and healthier lives as well as reduce the risk of transmission, but can't cure it.


There are five classes of ART drugs:


  1. Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors and nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors which target an HIV protein called reverse transcriptase. This class of drugs has been referred to as the backbone of the treatment.

  2. Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors which also target reverse transcriptase.

  3. Protease inhibitors which target an HIV protein called protease.

  4. Entry inhibitors which stop HIV from entering human cells. There are two types of inhibitors: fusion inhibitors and CCR5 inhibitors.

  5. Integrase inhibitors which target a protein in HIV called integrase, and stop the virus from inserting itself into the DNA of human cells.


How To Prevent HIV And AIDS


The only thing you can do for HIV and AIDS is prevention because there really is no cure for it. Here are some ways to prevent the infection:


  1. Use condoms: Use condoms every time you have sex even if it is with a long-term partner. Keep in mind that you should use a new condom every time you have sex. Women should not depend on their partners for protection as there are female condoms available in the market now. While using lubricants, be sure to use a water-based one as an oil-based one cause breakage more often.

  2. Use clean needles: First off, do not do drugs. But if you choose to, don't share your needles and use sterile ones every time. 

  3. Tell your partners you have HIV: Tell all your partners, past and present that you're HIV-positive. This way the two of you can work on preventing them from getting it.

  4. Get medical care if you're pregnant: It's possible to pass on the infection to the baby if the mother is HIV-positive. But there is treatment available in the market that reduces the risk significantly.

  5. Get circumcised: There's actual proof that circumcision can help reduce a man's risk of getting HIV.


Living With HIV Or AIDS


When detected with HIV, it is important to remember two things - one that you aren't alone and the second that it can be controlled even if you can't be treated. Most people get STDs once in their lifetime and it doesn't make you a bad or 'dirty' person unworthy of being around others.


However, if you're living with HIV or AIDS, it is important to make lifestyle changes since the immunity of your body is reduced. Infected people must take the medication prescribed since it is essential to treatment. Missing a single dose can also mess up your immunity as well as the treatment. Side effects of the medicines may make it difficult to adhere to the medication schedule. However, instead of avoiding your medication, you must make changes to it and switch it up.


People with HIV should also seek to live a better and healthier lifestyle through exercise, balanced diet as well as reduction of any drugs and alcohol including tobacco. Apart from this, these people also need to minimise exposure to infections, especially around animals and pets. Take precautions like regularly washing your hands and eating from sanitary places. 


Apart from all this, infected people must also stay in regular touch with their medical team to discuss treatment, reactions to medications as well as tracking the virus. Depending upon the reactions, the team can then, continuously update the dosage or switch up medicines needed.


The one thing that is underestimated the most about the virus are the psychological effects of it. It may be common for distress, anxiety or depression to sneak in during the time you're busy fighting the disease. If you ever feel anxious or unable to function, seek professional help.


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How To Talk To People About Your Condition


When you're diagnosed with HIV, it is common to feel mad, embarrassed or ashamed. These feelings will only dissipate over a period of time if you have a support system that's trustworthy. All humans need this and talking to your close ones, who're non-judgemental and supportive can make this journey easier. There are also counsellors and support groups with people afflicted with the same disease who can be a source of inspiration and comfort for you. They'll help you figure out your way around talking to people as well as the unwanted discrimination you may face.


Dating As A HIV-Positive Person


There is no correct way to talk to your partner about being infected and here are some tips that may help:


1. Stay calm and remember that this is a new situation for both you and your partner. A lot of HIV positive people are in happy relationships so go into the conversation with a positive attitude. This has nothing to do with who you are as a person.


2. Brush up all your facts about HIV. Your partner may have a lot of questions and it is important that they get to know the facts and clear their doubts. Let them know about all the precautions you two can take - safer sex and medicines that can prevent HIV.


3. Choose a time and place wisely. The conversation may be lengthy and you do not want to be disturbed, interrupted or worried about being overheard.


4. If you've found out that your partner transmitted the infection to you, do not play blame games. Also, if one of you tests positive during the relationship do not jump to the conclusion that they cheated. HIV takes up months to show up in reports and sometimes years before you see symptoms. That's why it can be hard to tell when the person was infected. Your focus now should be to keep the other one safe.


5. It's also really important to tell your past sexual partners that you're infected so that they can get tested too. 


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