HIV and AIDS

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. Deterioration of the immune system is caused by the decline in CD4+ T cells, which are key infection fighters. As soon as HIV enters the body, it begins to destroy these cells.

HIV most often spreads through unprotected sex with an infected person. It may also spread by sharing drug needles or through contact with the blood of an infected person. Women can give it to their babies during pregnancy or childbirth.

The first signs of HIV infection may be swollen glands and flu-like symptoms. These may come and go a month or two after infection. Severe symptoms may not appear until months or years later.

A blood test can tell if you have HIV infection. Cardio-Med offers this test.

AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. It is the most advanced stage of infection with HIV. Without treatment, about half of those with HIV develop AIDS within 10 years, although the period between infection and development varies widely, from one to 20 years.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of HIV?

You cannot rely on symptoms to tell whether you have HIV. The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. Knowing your status is important because it helps you make healthy decisions to prevent getting or transmitting HIV.

The symptoms of HIV vary, depending on the individual and what stage of the disease you are in: the early stage, the clinical latency stage, or AIDS (the late stage of HIV infection). Below are the symptoms that some individuals may experience in these three stages. Not all individuals will experience these symptoms.

Early Stage of HIV
Some people may experience a flu-like illness within 2-4 weeks after HIV infection. But some people may not feel sick during this stage.

Flu-like symptoms can include:

These symptoms can last from a few days to several weeks. During this time, HIV infection may not be detected on an HIV test, but people who have it are highly infectious and can spread the infection to others.

You should not assume you have HIV just because you have any of these symptoms. Each can be caused by other illnesses. Some people who have HIV do not show any symptoms at all for 10 years or more.

If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, get an HIV test. Most HIV tests detect antibodies (proteins your body makes as a reaction against the presence of HIV), not HIV itself. But it takes a few weeks for your body to produce these antibodies, so if you test too early, you might not get an accurate test result. A new HIV test is available that can detect HIV directly during this early stage of infection. So be sure to let your physician know if you think you may have been recently infected with HIV.

After you get tested, it's important to find out the result of your test so you can talk to your physician about treatment options if you're HIV-positive or learn ways to prevent getting HIV if you're HIV-negative.

You are at high risk of transmitting HIV to others during the early stage of HIV infection, even if you have no symptoms. For this reason, it is very important to take steps to reduce your risk of transmission.

Clinical Latency stage
After the early stage of HIV infection, the disease moves into a stage called the clinical latency stage (also called "chronic HIV infection"). During this stage, HIV is still active but reproduces at very low levels. People with chronic HIV infection may not have any HIV-related symptoms, or only mild ones.

For people who aren't taking medicine to treat HIV (called antiretroviral therapy or ART), this period can last a decade or longer, but some may progress through this phase faster. People who are taking medicine to treat HIV may be in this stage for several decades because treatment helps keep the virus in check.

It's important to remember that people can still transmit HIV to others during this phase even if they have no symptoms, although people who are on ART and stay virally suppressed (with a very low level of virus in their blood) are much less likely to transmit HIV than those who are not virally suppressed.

Progression to AIDS
If you have HIV and you are not on ART, eventually the virus will weaken your body's immune system and you will progress to AIDS, the late stage of HIV infection.

Symptoms can include:

Many of the severe symptoms and illnesses of HIV disease come from the opportunistic infections that occur because your body's immune system has been damaged.

Diagnosis of AIDS

People are diagnosed with AIDS when they have certain signs or symptoms defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC's definition of AIDS includes:

Symptoms also may include anxiety, dementia, depression and insomnia.

Tests for HIV and AIDS
Blood tests are the most common way to diagnose HIV and AIDS. These tests look for antibodies to the virus that are present in the blood of infected individuals. People exposed to the virus should get tested immediately.

Early testing is crucial with HIV. If you test positive for the virus, you and your physician can develop a treatment plan to help fight HIV and ward off complications. Early testing also can alert you to avoid high-risk behavior that could spread the virus to others.

Because it can take from six weeks to six months to develop antibodies to the virus, follow-up tests may be needed. Your physician will ask about your symptoms, medical history and risk factors and perform a complete physical examination.

The primary tests for diagnosing HIV and AIDs are:

Treatment

At this time, there is no cure for AIDS, but medications are effective in fighting HIV and its complications. Treatments are designed to reduce HIV in your body, keep your immune system as healthy as possible and decrease the complications you may develop.

You and your physician will work together to develop a treatment plan that best meets your needs. Three main factors will be considered when designing your treatment plan:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a number of drugs for treating HIV and AIDS. It's important that you take your medications exactly as prescribed. This is a crucial part of your treatment success.

Most medications have side effects, which your physician will discuss with you. Individuals respond differently to medications and side effects may vary.

AIDS Medications
Although there is no cure for AIDS, medications have been highly effective in fighting HIV and its complications. Drug treatments help reduce the HIV virus in your body, keep your immune system as healthy as possible and decrease the complications you may develop.

Some of the drug categories approved by the FDA for treating HIV and AIDS are listed below.

These medicines help people with HIV/AIDS, but they do not cure it. People with HIV infection still have the virus in their bodies. They can still spread HIV to others through unprotected sex and needle sharing, even when they are taking their medicines.


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Adapted from the National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine and the University of California San Francisco

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