What is HIV/AIDS?

Virtually everyone has heard of HIV/AIDS these days. It’s that scary disease that appeared in the 1980s out of nowhere and started killing millions of people, especially in Africa and poor countries in Asia. Although we can manage HIV/AIDS today and it is no longer considered a death sentence, it is still a frightening disease that many people do not understand.


HIV and AIDS are two diseases that are caused by the same virus, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is the first stage of the infection, which attacks the cells of the body’s immune system. During this process, the body is able to function close to normally, and you may not even know that you have been infected with HIV.


In many people with HIV, after months or years – the course of infection is different in everyone – the immune system finally fails and the body can no longer fight outside infections. At that point the disease is labeled AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. With the immune system completely destroyed, the body is vulnerable to every infection that comes along, and even the common cold can become deadly. People with AIDS can catch deadly illnesses from almost anything, even their pets. They also become very susceptible to certain kinds of cancer that are rarely seen in people with healthy immune systems.


How does HIV spread?

HIV lives in the blood and tissues of people who have been infected, so when these certain fluids and tissues come in contact with another person, the virus can spread. The most common way to catch HIV is through sex, since both semen and vaginal fluids contain high amounts of the virus. It’s also found in blood, breast milk, amniotic fluid, and spinal fluid. The good news is that HIV can’t be spread through day to day contact like shaking hands, sharing a bathroom, or a casual kiss.


The most common way that HIV is transmitted is by having sex – vaginal, anal, or oral – with an infected individual. Another common way of transmitting the virus is by sharing a needle (or other injection equipment) with a person who is infected with the HIV virus.


HIV has no symptoms in the early stages of infection, so if you have been exposed, you can spread it to your partners without even knowing it. This is why it is so important to get tested for infections at least every year if you are sexually active, and ideally whenever you have sex with a new partner.


How many people die from HIV/AIDS?

The CDC estimates that currently 1.2 million people in the United States are HIV positive, and 20% of the infected individuals are unaware of their infection. Even an open and honest sexual partner could pass this deadly infection to you without ever knowing it.
AIDS was first recognized in 1981. Since then, it has killed nearly 620,000 people in the United States.


What are the symptoms of HIV?

The only way to know if you have contracted the virus is to be tested for HIV. The symptoms of HIV infection, if you have any at all, are very similar to other common diseases, including the flu.


The following may be warning signs of advanced HIV infection:

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Dry cough
  • Profuse night sweats or recurring fever
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than a week
  • Unusual blemishes on the tongue


What is the connection between HIV and other STIs?

There is a strong connection between developing one STI and then catching others. STIs often cause inflammation of the genital region, even if it isn’t noticeable. That means that there is extra fluid in the area and sometimes tiny sores that are too small to be visible. This serves to make the genitals ripe for infection. The extra fluid and disruptions in the membranes make it easier to both give the infection to someone else, or to be infected yourself with another STI, including HIV.


How is HIV Diagnosed?

There are several different kinds of tests. Some are faster but might be less accurate, and some will take longer but give you a definite answer. If you are sexually active, talk to your doctor about what test is right for you, or visit a clinic for free or inexpensive testing.


When should testing be done?

About 25 days after being exposed to HIV, if the virus was transmitted to you, your body will start producing antibodies to fight the infection. At that point, there is enough virus and enough antibodies in your blood to detect during a blood test. Because the virus multiplies at different rates in every person, though, you will need to be tested again after 6 months to make sure that the initial test was accurate.


What about a positive test result?

It’s scary to test positive for HIV, but your life isn’t over! You will need to find a doctor who specializes in the treatment of HIV and AIDS. The sooner you can start taking anti-viral medications, the better the spread of the disease in your body can be contained. People with HIV can live long and normal lives, as long as they are careful about their treatment and proactive about their health.

If you are facing a positive diagnosis of HIV, you are not alone. Our counselors are always available to meet with you and help you manage the storm of emotions that you are feeling. Our 24-hour hotline is also available. We are here for you.


If you want to find out more, here are some websites with accurate information about HIV/AIDS:

Centers for Disease Control Factsheet – HIV at a Glance
WebMD – HIV and AIDS
WebMD – Support and Resources