HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. HIV destroys certain white blood cells called CD4+ T cells. These cells are critical to the normal function of the human immune system, which defends the body against illness. When HIV weakens the immune system, a person is more susceptible to developing a variety of cancers and becoming infected with viruses, bacteria and parasites.
AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. A person who tests positive for HIV can be diagnosed with AIDS when a laboratory test shows that his or her immune system is severely weakened by the virus or when he or she develops at least one of about 25 different opportunistic infections — diseases that might not affect a person with a normal immune system but that take advantage of damaged immune systems.
How is HIV detected?
Several different types of laboratory tests can be used to determine whether a person is HIV-positive. It is impossible to look at someone and know whether he or she is HIV-positive. Most tests used to screen for the virus detect HIV antibodies — proteins the body produces to fight off the infection — in blood or oral fluid samples.
How does HIV cause AIDS?
HIV destroys CD4+ T cells that are important to the normal function of the human immune system. As the virus destroys these cells, HIV-positive people are susceptible to illnesses that generally do not affect people with healthy immune systems. According to studies including thousands of people, most HIV-positive people are infected with the virus for years before it does enough damage to the immune system to make them susceptible to AIDS-related diseases. Tests are available to measure the amount of HIV in the blood – the viral load – and those with higher viral loads are more likely to develop AIDS-related diseases and to experience a decline in their CD4+ T cells. Reducing the amount of virus in the body with antiretroviral medications can dramatically slow the destruction of a person’s immune system and the progression of illness.
How long does it take for HIV to cause AIDS?
The time between HIV infection and progressing to AIDS differs for each person and depends on many factors, including a person’s health status and their health-related behaviors. With a healthy lifestyle, the time between HIV infection and developing AIDS-related illnesses can be 10 to 15 years, sometimes longer. Antiretroviral therapy can slow the progression of HIV to AIDS by decreasing the amount of virus in a person’s body. There also are other medical treatments that can prevent or cure some of the illnesses associated with AIDS, although the treatments do not cure HIV or AIDS. As with other diseases, early detection of HIV infection allows for more options for treatment and preventive health care.
What are some of the symptoms of HIV infection and AIDS?
Once infected with HIV, a person may or may not experience any symptoms. People who do experience symptoms might have a flu-like illness within one or two months after infection. Symptoms can include fever, headache, tiredness and/or enlarged lymph nodes. These symptoms usually disappear within a week to a month and are often mistaken for the symptoms of more common viral infections, like a cold. More persistent or severe symptoms might not appear for several years after a person is first infected with HIV. This period of “asymptomatic” infection is highly individual. Some people might begin to have symptoms within a few months, while others might be symptom-free for more than 10 years.
As the immune system is weakened by HIV, several complications and symptoms could begin to occur. These symptoms might be made worse if the HIV-positive person is not getting the care and services they need. For many people, the first signs of infection are enlarged lymph nodes or “swollen glands” that may be inflamed for several months. As the immune system is weakened by HIV, several complications and symptoms could begin to occur. These symptoms could be made worse if the HIV-positive person is not getting the care and services they need. For many people, the first signs of infection are enlarged lymph nodes or “swollen glands” that may be inflamed for several months. Other symptoms that HIV-positive people might experience months to years before receiving an AIDS diagnosis include:
- Lack of energy
- Weight loss
- Frequent fevers and sweats (sometimes known as “night sweats”)
- Persistent or frequent yeast infections (oral or vaginal)
- Persistent skin rashes or flaky skin
- Pelvic inflammatory disease in women that does not respond to treatment
- Short-term memory loss
- Frequent and severe herpes infections that cause mouth, genital, or anal sores, or a painful nerve disease called shingles.
Both men and women experience many of the same symptoms from HIV infection.
However, women also experience unique complications that are primarily gynecologic. These could include recurrent vaginal yeast infections, severe pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) or human papillomavirus (HPV) infections. Other vaginal infections might occur more frequently and with greater severity in HIV-positive women (compared with HIV-negative women), including bacterial vaginosis and common sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and trichomoniasis. HIV-positive women also might experience disruptions or other irregularities in their menstrual cycles.
The signs and symptoms of HIV/AIDS are similar to the symptoms of many other illnesses. The only way to determine HIV infection is to be tested.
Is there a cure for HIV/AIDS?
There is no known cure for HIV/AIDS. There are medical treatments that can slow down the rate at which HIV weakens the immune system. There are other treatments that can prevent or cure some of the illnesses associated with AIDS. Researchers are testing a variety of preventive and curative vaccine candidates, but a successful vaccine likely is years away.
How is HIV transmitted?
HIV transmission can occur when blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, vaginal fluid or breast milk from an HIV-positive person enters the body of an HIV-negative person. HIV can enter the body through a vein, the lining of the anus or rectum, the lining of the vagina and/or cervix, the opening to the penis, the mouth, other mucous membranes — such as the eyes or inside of the nose — or cuts and sores. Intact, healthy skin is an excellent barrier against HIV and other viruses and bacteria.
Worldwide, the most common way that HIV is transmitted is through sexual transmission, including anal, vaginal or oral sex with an HIV-positive person. HIV also can be transmitted by sharing needles or injection equipment with an injection drug user who is HIV-positive, or from an HIV-positive woman to her infant before or during birth or through breastfeeding after birth. HIV also can be transmitted through receipt of infected blood or blood clotting factors.
How is HIV not transmitted?
HIV is not easily passed from one person to another. The virus does not survive well outside of the body. HIV cannot be transmitted through casual or everyday contact such as shaking hands or hugging. Sweat, tears, vomit, feces and urine do contain small amounts of HIV, but they have not been reported to transmit the disease. Mosquitoes and other insects do not transmit HIV.
Why are young women at a higher risk of HIV infection than young men?
Many young women lack information about sexual and reproductive health and disease prevention. In countries with generalized epidemics, the majority of women ages 15 to 24 do not have access to information or resources about reproductive health and HIV/AIDS. Young women may also lack access to health care and education. In addition, young women are among the most vulnerable because their genital tracts have less mature tissue, which may be more easily torn, and they are often victims of coercive or forced sex.
Q: I don’t want to go to my family doctor. Where can I get anonymous HIV testing?
A: The important thing to know when you are thinking about testing is whether you want CONFIDENTIAL testing, or ANONYMOUS testing.
To get tested anonymously in Toronto, you can go to any of these centers. In other cities, call sexual health phone lines or a local AIDS organization. Remember, there is a big difference between anonymous and confidential testing!
Finally, know that it is your right to determine who finds out your HIV status. Schools, workplaces, friends, and family don’t have to right to know unless you want them to.
Q: I think I might have contracted HIV. What do I do next?
A: Recall as accurately as possible the day or week you think you were exposed to HIV. Then, go for an HIV antibody test after 14 weeks of initial exposure. If you go for your test any earlier than 14 weeks, the result may not be accurate. In the meantime, try to lower your risks of being exposed again by practicing safer sex, using latex barriers, and not sharing needles if you want to shoot up drugs.
Q: Where can I get condoms?
A: You can buy condoms at most drug stores, pharmacies, shopping stores and sex-stores. free condoms are available at Gay Desi and in many other sexual-heath organizations. Are you too young to buy condoms? NO! There is no age restriction on buying or having condoms. It may be uncomfortable for you to buy condoms in a store whose staffs are giving you a hard time though. So, keep in mind the option of getting it from AIDS organizations, or health clinics, etc. Condoms come in different thickness, sizes, and styles. It’s best to try out different brands and types until you find one that fits the best.