Human Immunodeficiency Virus- HIV

What is Human Immunodeficiency Virus?

Human Immunodeficiency Virus, commonly called HIV, is a virus spread by body fluids that attack the body’s immune system (T4 cells). Over time, so many of the T cells are destroyed that the body can no longer fight off infections, diseases and/or cancers. HIV is a virus that cannot be cured but can be controlled with proper medical care. If left untreated, HIV can lead to AIDS and death.

HIV is a STD most commonly spread through anal or vaginal sex and possibly through oral sex. It can also be spread by the sharing of drug needles, healthcare exposures or from mother to baby in the womb, through childbirth or breastfeeding.

Signs and Symptoms:

Stage 1– Acute HIV Infection

Stage one begins with flu-like symptoms often within about 2 to 4 weeks of initial exposure. During this stage, the virus is highly contagious but most people are unaware of the infection at this time.

Stage 2– Clinical latency (HIV inactivity or dormancy)

Stage 2, sometimes called asymptomatic HIV infection or chronic HIV infection, may not show any symptoms and may remain symptom free for a few months to decades. During this time, the virus is very slow in reproducing but is still active and can be spread to others. Near the end of this stage, the viral load increases and symptoms may begin to develop.

Stage 3– Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)

AIDS is the most severe, infectious stage of HIV infection.  The infected person gets increasing infections, often called opportunistic infections, as a result of the severely weakened immune system. Common symptoms are chills, fever, sweats, swollen lymph glands, weakness, and weight loss, with average survival of about 3 years after onset if not receiving treatment. AIDS is diagnosed when the CD4 cell count drops below 200 cells/mm or if certain opportunistic infections develop. 

Prevention:

  • Abstinence from ALL sexual activity (Oral, vaginal, anal) is the only 100% way to prevent an STD.
  • Condom usage during all sexual encounters for the entire duration of genital contact will reduce the spread of a STD. Condoms are available for men and women as well as dental dams for oral sex.
  • Refrain from using drugs and/or alcohol in sexual situations, and never share drug needles
  • Limit the number of sexual partners
  • Newer medicines such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). These medications DO NOT protect or prevent the spread of other STDs or pregnancy and it is your responsibility to protect yourself and your partner! Safe sex practices must still be used in addition to these medications.

Testing:

The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV at least once as part of routine health care. About 15% of people in the United States who have HIV don’t know they have it. People with certain risk factors should get tested more often.

No HIV test can reliably detect HIV immediately after infection. Some more specific tests can help detect Stage 1 infection (a fourth-generation antibody/antigen test or a nucleic acid (NAT) test). The time between when a person gets HIV and when a test can accurately detect it is called the window period. The window period can vary from person to person. A general recommendation to follow: if a HIV test within 3 months after a potential exposure is negative, repeat testing again in 3 months to be sure.

When to see a Provider:

If you feel that you have symptoms or have had a known exposure to an infected partner, call to schedule an appointment with a provider as soon as possible for testing and treatment. If you are seeking PrEP or PEP, you should also call to schedule an appointment. Treatment is most effective when it is started early or pre-exposure.

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