What is HIV?

HIV attacks the body’s immune cells, specifically targeting the white blood cells called T cells. T cells help the body’s immune system to fight infections.

A doctor with a positive HIV blood sample.
If untreated, HIV reduces the body’s ability to fight infection and diseases.

If HIV is not treated, it reduces the number of T cells in the body. In turn, this affects the body’s ability to fight infection. People with HIV will be not only more at risk from infections but also infection-related cancers.

Over time, the body becomes unable to fight off infections and diseases, especially if HIV is left untreated. Eventually, these infections can overwhelm the weakened immune system.

HIV is classified as a sexually transmitted disease. According to AIDS.gov, HIV is mainly transmitted in the U.S. through sexual behaviors and needle or syringe use. It can be transmitted in several different ways, however:

  • Through the vaginal, anal, or oral sex
  • Through coming into contact with infected blood, semen, cervical, or vaginal fluids
  • From a mother to infant during pregnancy, labor, delivery, and breastfeeding

To become infected, these bodily fluids must come into direct contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue. The rectum, vagina, penis and mouth all contain mucous membranes.

To be transmitted by a needle or syringe, the virus must be directly injected into the bloodstream.

Recognizing the symptoms of HIV

Most people develop a flu-like illness between 1 to 4 weeks after becoming infected with the virus. These symptoms are referred to as acute retroviral syndrome and can last from a few days to several weeks.

Specific symptoms include:

  • A fever or a rise in body temperature
  • A body rash that usually does not itch
  • Additional flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches, severe tiredness, night sweats, and sore throat
  • Swollen glands
  • Sores or ulcers in the mouth or the genitals
  • Meningitis

The symptoms of HIV can vary depending on the stage of the infection.

Stages of HIV

Stage 1: Primary acute HIV infection

Within 2 to 4 weeks, people who are infected with the virus may begin to experience flu-like symptoms. This is the body’s natural response to an infection.

At this stage, there is a large amount of the virus present in the blood, and the person is very contagious. HIV can be spread more efficiently this stage than the next stage. However, symptoms can be mild and can often go unnoticed. People often do not realize they are infected.

This stage is commonly referred to as “the window period.” Those infected with HIV develop antibodies to HIV antigens anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months after being infected. Even if tested, the antibodies may not give a positive test until 6 weeks.

Stage 2: Clinical latency (HIV inactivity or dormancy)

This stage is also referred to as asymptomatic HIV infection or chronic HIV infection. The HIV is still active but reproduces at lower levels. There may not be any visible symptoms, and the person may not get sick.

In people with HIV who are not taking medicine to treat the virus, this dormant period can last for a decade or longer. For some people, this phase may progress faster.

People who are regularly taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) medicine to treat HIV may be in this stage for several decades. They can still transmit the virus to others, but those who are on ART are less likely to transmit HIV than those who are not. People with HIV who receive ART have a much lower level of HIV in their blood.

Although a person with HIV may not exhibit symptoms, the virus is still active inside of the body and can be still be transmitted. During this period, the virus continues to multiply and destroy immune cells. Some people will develop mild infections or symptoms including:

A man has a headache.
Stage 2 HIV symptoms include fever, tiredness, and weight loss.
  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Swollen glands
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Shingles
  • Tuberculosis
  • Severe psoriasis
  • Thrush
  • Blood count abnormalities such as anemia or low white blood cell counts

Stage 3: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)

Without treatment for HIV, individuals can expect to progress to AIDS in around 10 years. AIDS is the last stage of HIV infection and the most severe.

At this point, AIDS has badly damaged the body’s immune system. The individual begins to develop an increasing number of severe illnesses. People with AIDS are unable to fight off simple illnesses that people with healthy immune systems would have no trouble fighting.

Many people with HIV eventually develop AIDS. The rate of progress depends on factors such as age, genetic factors, and the strain of the virus.

Signs and symptoms of AIDS include:

  • Frequent soaking night sweats
  • Recurring fever
  • Long-term diarrhea
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent unexplained fatigue
  • Skin rashes
  • Unusual spots and sores in the mouth

Without any treatment, people with AIDS can expect to survive for around 3 years. Those with AIDS see their T cell counts drop below 200 cells per millimeter of blood. They also have a high amount of the virus in their blood and are very infectious.

Diagnosis of HIV

The best way to determine if a person has HIV is through a blood test. HIV blood tests work by detecting certain proteins called antibodies that are present in the blood. The body automatically makes these proteins in response to the presence of HIV.

Saliva tests can also detect the presence of HIV.

People who have shared needles or had sex without a condom should be sure to get tested.

Some sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can mimic HIV symptoms and make the body more at risk from HIV. STDs that cause open sores on the genitals such as herpes or genital warts can increase the chance of developing HIV.

Treatments for HIV

There is currently no cure for HIV. Doctors will give patients anti-HIV drugs which help to block the virus.

HIV drugs.
While there is no cure for HIV, anti-HIV drugs can block the virus.

Classes of anti-HIV drugs include:

  • Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs)
  • Nucleoside or nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs)
  • Protease inhibitors (PIs)
  • Entry or fusion inhibitors
  • Integrase inhibitors

Each drug works in a different way. A doctor will determine the best drug therapy program for each patient to follow.

As the disease progresses, people with HIV may develop other illnesses that will also require treatment. Some health problems are more common in women and are harder to treat in people infected with HIV:

  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis
  • Vaginal infections including yeast and bacterial infections
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections which can cause genital warts or cervical cancer
  • Other infections that could potentially affect the eyes, gut, kidneys, lungs, skin, or brain.

Preventing HIV

AIDS.gov state that more than 1.2 million people are currently living with the HIV infection in the U.S. Of these, almost 1 in 8 (12.8 percent) are unaware they have the infection.

People can protect themselves from HIV by learning about the dangers and how to avoid them.

  • Practice safe sex. Use a condom when engaging in sexual activity
  • Be honest. People should tell sexual partners if they have HIV so they understand the dangers and can protect themselves
  • Always use clean needles and don’t share them with other people


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