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.
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:
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.
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.
There are three stages of 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.
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.
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.
There are various symptoms of HIV and AIDS depending on the phase of infection.
Within a month or two of the virus entering the body, most people infected with HIV develop flu-like symptoms. They are:
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.
As the virus continues to multiply, there may be chronic mild infections of signs such as:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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 is 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.
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 counselors 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.
There is no correct way to talk to your partner about being infected and here are some tips that may help in your relationship and even for your sexual relationship:
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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