Everything You Need to Know about HIV and What You Can Do to Prevent It

pinned condom with AIDS HIV STOP words

More than one million people in America have HIV. 1 in every 7 of those people are blissfully unaware of it. Gay and bisexual men are the most affected group by far, accounting for 67% of total diagnoses and 83% of diagnoses among males.

HIV stands for “human immunodeficiency virus.” AIDS, the most progressive stage of HIV, stands for “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.” HIV targets the human immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off infection, disease, and forms of cancer. As HIV destroys the immune system over time, it evolves into AIDS.

Because HIV can cause major damage even in early stages, getting treatment as soon as possible helps improve life expectancy. Looking for the signs and noticing risky behavior can help you spot HIV before it develops into AIDS and before any complications arise.

Routine HIV screenings are crucial to health. If you have engaged in risky behavior such as unprotected sex or sharing of intravenous needles or syringes, seek a doctor immediately. Do not wait. Get tested at once. Getting tested is the most important step to living a full life with HIV.

Symptoms

Symptoms can vary on a case-by-case basis. However, there are patterns that the disease follows which can help you spot the signs early. Symptoms usually appear two to four weeks after the initial infection.

Typically, symptoms are commonly mistaken for a cold, flu, or mono in beginning stages. However, if symptoms do not appear within those first two to four weeks, it can incubate in the body for years before you experience any symptoms.

sick man showing HIV symptomsIn the beginning stages, common symptoms include rashes, fever, sore throat, or headaches, but you may also spot swollen lymph nodes, ulcers, or experience nausea or fatigue. These can all frequently be misinterpreted as something other than HIV.

Without treatment, HIV continues to live inside the body and terrorize the immune system. When it is weakened beyond repair, HIV has progressed to AIDS. People with AIDS are usually more susceptible to colds, infections, and the flu virus.

Some of the symptoms of AIDS, apart from frequent colds, are diarrhea, weight loss, ulcers or sores, chills and sweats, swollen lymph nodes, memory loss or confusion, and fever.

Causes

HIV rarely survives outside the body. You cannot get it from skin-to-skin contact, kissing, or sharing drinking glasses with someone who has been infected. HIV can be spread via bodily fluids, such as blood, semen, or vaginal fluids.

The most common way people contract the virus is through unprotected sex with an HIV positive partner. However, it is also common for someone to contract the virus from using an intravenous needle that has already been used by an infected person.

HIV can also pass from a mother to her baby during stages of pregnancy, the birth process, or through breastfeeding.

Risk Factors

Risk factors usually come down to who you are and who you are having sexual contact with.

Gay and bisexual men are by far the most affected group of people in the United States. They continually have the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses. African American and Latino individuals are also disproportionately affected by HIV.

If you engage in risky behavior, like unsafe sexual contact or sharing needles or syringes, your likelihood of contracting HIV goes up significantly. Get tested as soon as possible.

Complications

Since HIV reduces the effectiveness of the immune system, a great many complications can arise. “Opportunistic infections” feed off of the weakened immune system that HIV creates in an infected individual, leading to life-threatening results.

  • Candidiasis, or thrush, is a common fungal infection in HIV positive patients
  • Cryptococcosis, and often fatal lung infection that can spread to the brain
  • HIV-related encephalopathy, or HIV’s version of dementia
  • Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, the number one cause of death in HIV positive individuals
  • Tuberculosis, which is most common in low-income communities
  • Lymphoma, cancers that frequently target HIV positive patients

These are only some of the few most severe complications. With a weakened immune system, just about anything that can be caught will be caught. A simple cold could keep you in bed for weeks. Anything more than that could potentially be fatal.

Damage to the brain and spinal cord is possible, as well as various fungal infections and lung infections. Herpes and salmonella have above average rates of contraction in HIV positive patients. These are all potential causes of death.

It is imperative that those living with HIV use condoms during sex, eat food that has been prepared properly, and get their vaccinations in order to avoid potentially life-threatening complications.

Prevention

HIV letters with syringeThe best advice for avoiding contraction of HIV is to practice safe sex. Using a new condom every time you have sex is crucial when you are unsure whether you or a partner has HIV. Until you are beyond doubt, use a condom.

It is also important to not have more than one sexual partner at a time. The safest way to have sex is to have sex with someone who only has sex with you.

It is important to get tested and treated for all STDs, not just HIV. It is a tough conversation, but make sure you insist that your partners are being tested and treated as well.

Outlook

Over the last twenty years, the life expectancy for HIV positive people has risen drastically. With the right treatment, patients can live longer, healthier, fulfilling lives.

Since 1996, life expectancy has been on a consistent rise. This has been thanks to drugs and medications being worked on and developed, adding to the then used practices. With all of this knowledge, HIV has never been so successfully treated.

With knowledge came education. As awareness for HIV and AIDS rises, so does the rate of education. As people are educated on how the disease is spread and caught, more can be done to stop the spread. Between the years of 2010 and 2014, the number of new HIV cases in America fell by 10%. The outlook, overall, is positive as long as we continue this trend.