Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The virus weakens a person’s ability to fight infections and cancer. People with HIV are said to have AIDS when they develop certain infections or cancers or when their CD4 count is less than 200. CD4 count is determined by a blood test in a doctor’s office.

Having HIV does not always mean that you have AIDS. It can take many years for people with the virus to develop AIDS. HIV and AIDS cannot be cured. Although people with AIDS will likely one day die from an AIDS-related illness, there are ways to help people stay healthy and live-longer.

How Does HIV and AIDS Cause Illness?

HIV attacks and destroys a type of white blood cell called a CD4 cell. This cell’s main function is to fight disease. When a person’s CD4 cell count gets low, they are more susceptible to illnesses.

What Is AIDS?

AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection. When the immune system CD4 cells drop to a very low level, a person’s ability to fight infection is lost. In addition, there are several conditions that occur in people with HIV infection with this degree of immune system failure — these are called AIDS defining illnesses.

How Do People Get HIV?

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S. the estimated number of people with HIV/AIDS is about 1,185,000 with approximately 25% of them unaware of their infection. The estimated number of new cases of HIV is 42,000 each year. A person gets HIV when an infected person’s body fluids (blood, semen, fluids from the vagina or breast milk) enter his or her bloodstream. The virus can enter the blood through linings in the mouth, anus or sex organs (the penis and vagina), or through broken skin.

Both men and women can spread HIV. A person with HIV can feel okay and still give the virus to others. Pregnant women with HIV also can give the virus to their babies.

Common ways people get HIV:

  • Sharing a needle to take drugs.
  • Having unprotected sex with an infected person.

You cannot get HIV from:

  • Touching or hugging someone who has HIV/AIDS.
  • Public bathrooms or swimming pools.
  • Sharing cups, utensils, or telephones with someone who has HIV/AIDS.
  • Bug bites.

Who Can Get HIV?

Anyone can get HIV if they engage in certain activities. You may have a higher risk of getting HIV if you:

  • Have unprotected sex. This means vaginal or anal intercourse without a condom or oral sex without a latex barrier with a person infected with HIV.
  • Share needles to inject drugs or steroids with an infected person. The disease can also be transmitted by dirty needles used to make a tattoo or in body piercing.
  • Receive a blood transfusion from an infected person. This is very unlikely in the U.S. and Western Europe, where all blood is tested for HIV infection.
  • Are born to a mother with HIV infection. A baby can also get HIV from the breast milk of an infected woman.

If you fall into any of the categories above, you should consider being tested for HIV.

Health care workers are at risk on the job and should take special precautions. Some health care workers have become infected after being stuck with needles containing HIV-infected blood or less frequently, after infected blood comes into contact with an open cut or through splashes into the worker’s eyes or inside their nose.

HIV Tests

The only way to know if you have HIV is to take an HIV test. Most tests looks for signs of HIV in your blood. A small sample of blood is taken from your arm. The blood is sent to a lab and tested for HIV. There are other tests available that check for HIV in the urine and oral fluid. The urine test is not very sensitive. There are currently two FDA approved oral fluid tests. They are OraSure and OraQuick Advance.

Because of the inaccurate results, the FDA has not approved any of the home-use HIV tests which allow people to interpret their tests in a few minutes at home. There is however a Home Access test approved which can be found at most drugstores. In this test blood from a finger prick is placed on a card and sent to a licensed laboratory. Consumers are given an identification number to use when phoning for results and have the opportunity to speak with a counselor if desired.

Clinics that do HIV tests keep your test results secret. Some clinics even perform HIV tests without ever taking your name (anonymous testing). You must go back to the clinic to get your results. A positive test means that you have HIV. A negative test means that no signs of HIV were found in your blood.

Before taking an HIV test:

  • Ask the clinic what privacy rules it follows
  • Think about how knowing you have HIV would change your life
  • Ask your doctor or nurse any questions you have about HIV, AIDS or the HIV test

Who Should Be Tested?

Currently, it is recommended that people who engage in risky behaviors such as unprotected sex or needle-sharing — and all pregnant women be tested for HIV infection.

Does HIV Have Symptoms?

Some people get flu-like symptoms a month or two after they have been infected. These symptoms often go away within a week to a month. A person can have HIV for many years before feeling ill.

As the disease progresses, both women and men may experience yeast infections on the tongue (thrush), and women may develop severe vaginal yeast infections or pelvic inflammatory disease.

What Are the Symptoms of AIDS?

Signs that HIV is turning into AIDS include:

  • A fever that won’t go away.
  • Sweating while you sleep.
  • Feeling tired all the time. (not from stress or lack of sleep)
  • Feeling sick all the time.
  • Losing weight.
  • Swollen glands. (neck, groin or underarms)

What Infections Do People With AIDS Get?

People with AIDS are extremely vulnerable to infection, called AIDS defining illnesses, and often exhibit the following conditions:

  • Kaposi’s sarcoma, a skin tumor that looks like dark purple blotches.
  • Mental changes and headaches due to fungal infections or tumors in the brain and spinal cord.
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing due to infections of the lungs.
  • Dementia.
  • Severe malnutrition.
  • Chronic diarrhea.

How Is AIDS Diagnosed?

If a person with HIV infection has a CD4 count that drops below 200 — or if certain infections appear (AIDS defining illnesses) — that person is considered to have AIDS.

How Is HIV Treated?

We’ve come along way from the days when diagnosis with HIV equaled a death sentence. Today, there are a variety of treatments that, when used in combination can significantly slow down and in some cases stop altogether, the progression of HIV infection.

After HIV infection is confirmed, your doctor will start you on a drug regimen consisting of several drugs; combinations of different types of anti-HIV drugs sometimes are called HAART, for highly-active anti-retroviral therapy (HIV is a kind of virus called a retrovirus).

Unfortunately, taking HAART therapy isn’t easy. These drugs must be taken at exactly the right time, every single day. Also, a range of side effects may occur, including: diarrhea, nausea, or abnormal distribution of body fat. And, the virus often mutates, or changes, making the treatments ineffective.

If your disease has progressed to AIDS, your treatment may also include drugs to combat and prevent certain infections.

How Do I Know If the HIV Treatments Are Working?

Your doctor can monitor how well your treatment is working by measuring the amount of HIV in your blood (also called the viral load.) The goal is to get the viral load so low with HAART treatment as to be undetectable.

How Can I Keep From Getting HIV?

The best way to protect yourself is to avoid activities that put you at risk. There’s no way to tell by looking at someone if he or she has HIV. Always protect yourself.

  • Use latex condoms (rubbers) whenever you have any type of sex (vaginal, anal, or oral).
  • Don’t use condoms made from animal products.
  • Use water-based lubricants. Oil-based lubricants can weaken condoms.
  • Never share needles to take drugs.
  • Avoid getting drunk or high. People who are drunk or high may be less likely to protect themselves.

How Can I Prevent HIV From Progressing to AIDS?

You can help prolong your life by taking good care of yourself and insisting on good medical care from a doctor experienced at treating people with HIV infection. Also. be consistent about taking your HIV medications as prescribed.

What Is the Outlook for Someone With HIV or AIDS?

It depends on how the virus responds to early treatment. When treatment fails to decrease the replication of the virus, the effects can become life threatening, and the infection can progress to AIDS.

Even with treatment, some people seem to naturally experience a more rapid course towards AIDS. However, the majority of HIV patients who receive appropriate treatment do well and live healthy lives for years.