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Overview of HIV/AIDS: Symptoms, causes, treatment and prevention

Dr. Ajay KohliOct 18, 2022

With an average of 6,50,000 deaths and 1.5 million new cases in 2021, HIV/AIDS, a chronic and life-threatening condition, is a global menace. An HIV diagnosis can be life-altering. Despite this, access to proper medical care has made HIV/AIDS more manageable to the point that a person living with HIV can still lead a normal and healthy life. Read ahead to know more about this illness.

HIV/AIDS

Contents

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What is HIV/AIDS?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is a retrovirus that cripples the immune system by destroying T helper cells, or CD4 cells, to such an extent that the body becomes a victim of several diseases and disorders. When left untreated, it progresses to a more advanced stage of infection called AIDS or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, where a person's CD4 cell count falls below 200 cells per cubic millimetre of blood (200 cells/mm3), and they have developed one or more opportunistic infections. 

But having HIV does not mean you have AIDS. Because even without treatment, it takes about a decade or more for someone with HIV to progress to AIDS. 

Signs and symptoms of HIV/AIDS

HIV infection occurs in stages where symptoms vary in severity, and not everyone gets the same symptoms. Most HIV-positive individuals appear perfectly normal for many years or experience a mild flu-like illness, called primary or acute infection, within a month or two after exposure. At this stage, symptoms may resemble other diseases and typically include the following.

  •  Fever

  •  Headaches

  •  Sore throat 

  • Swollen lymph glands (in the neck)

  • Skin rashes

  • Upset stomach

  • Joint aches and muscular pains

These symptoms last for a few days to several weeks. 

In most cases, once the initial symptoms subside, you will not encounter any more symptoms for the next ten years or longer, depending on your age, background, and general health. But remember that even during this asymptomatic period, HIV is actively infecting and killing the cells of your immune system. On the contrary, for people on HIV treatment, this asymptomatic phase is often longer than typical.

As the immune system deteriorates, AIDS-related complications begin to surface. In this state, you are at a heightened risk of other serious diseases associated with severe immunodeficiency, known as opportunistic infections, indicated by the following symptoms. 

  • Extreme weight loss

  • Persistent and unexplained lack of energy

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the throat, armpits, and groin for more than three months

  • Recurring fever

  • Chills and night sweats

  • Dry and deep cough spells

  • Chronic pelvic inflammatory diseases that do not respond to treatment

  • Short-term memory loss

  • Vision loss

  • Severe and persistent diarrhoea

  • Bleeding from mouth, nose, and anus (called shingles)

  • One or more types of opportunistic cancers (like Kaposi sarcoma, invasive cervical cancer, Burkitt's lymphoma, etc.)

  • Recurrent yeast infections (in the mouth and vagina)

  • Seizures and lack of coordination

If you think your odds of contracting HIV are higher, talk to your doctor and get tested as soon as possible to prevent these complications. 

What Causes HIV/AIDS?

HIV, which is typically present in an infected person's blood and bodily fluids (such as seminal fluid, vaginal fluids, and breast milk), is the virus responsible for AIDS. And you can get HIV, if:

  • You have had unprotected oral or vaginal sex with an infected person. 

  • You share contaminated needles, syringes, or drug-use equipment.

  • You undergo infected blood transfusion or other medical procedures. 

Transmission of HIV also occurs from infected mothers to their babies during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. 

Nevertheless, catching the virus through casual contact or sharing utensils and public restrooms with an infected person is not likely. Even deep kissing between partners, unless they have bleeding mouth sores, does not spread HIV. 

Types of HIV

Based on genetic characteristics, HIV is subdivided into two types: HIV-1 and HIV-2.

HIV -1 is the most common type responsible for the global AIDS pandemic, whereas HIV-2 occurs in West Africa and spreads slowly. 

Treatment for HIV/AIDS

At present, there is no cure available for HIV. But scientists are trying to find one. Meanwhile, the best way for an HIV patient to live a long life if diagnosed early is to start antiretroviral treatment (ART). The main goals of the treatment are as follows.

  • Suppress viral replication

  • Reduce the viral load in the body 

  • Restore the immune system

  • Stop the onset and progression of the disease 

  • Reduce the risk of other opportunistic illnesses (like coccidioidomycosis, tuberculosis, sarcoidosis, etc.) 

But remember that ART is not a cure for HIV. Failure to take them correctly and missing doses can increase an HIV person's risk of infecting others. So, stick to your prescribed treatment schedule to avoid resistance to HIV drugs while keeping your viral load low and having a normal life expectancy. 

Diagnosis of HIV/AIDS

Since HIV symptoms do not present for years, establishing the stage of infection and providing the best treatment often gets delayed, which not only compromises the health of the HIV patient but also increases the danger to others. Testing for HIV is, thus, the only sure way to receive prompt treatment, so you can feel better and live longer.

You will be asked to submit your blood and saliva for laboratory testing, where different tests will look for antibodies developed in your body against the virus. It can take anywhere from a few months to even a year for your body to develop enough antibodies to show up on an HIV test. 

These tests include the following.

  • Antibody Test:  This test will look for antibodies against HIV 3 to 12 weeks after your initial exposure to find if you are positive.

  • Antigen/Antibody Test:  This kind of test detects both HIV antibodies and antigens in the sample and can take 2 to 6 weeks after exposure to become positive.

  • Nucleic Acid Test (NAT):  This test looks for the whole virus in the blood. Through this test, your doctor can easily tell you whether you have HIV and, if you have HIV, how much virus is present in your blood. 

  • Rapid test or self-help test:  You can easily and quickly do this test at home and get the results in 20 to 30 minutes. 

How can I prevent HIV/AIDS?

With no vaccine in the medical arsenal to prevent HIV, some practical tips that you can implement to lower your odds of infection are as follows.

  • Educate yourself about the modes of HIV transmission.

  • Use condoms consistently and correctly before you have sex.

  • Limit the number of sexual partners.

  • Never share the needles, syringes, and other drug-injecting equipment with others.

  • Get tested and treated for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like gonorrhoea, chlamydia, syphilis, and herpes infection.

  • Talk to your doctor about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) or post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) if you think you are at risk of catching HIV or being exposed to HIV.

Risk factors of HIV/AIDS

Some behaviours and conditions that could raise a person's chances of catching HIV include the following.

  • Having sex without using condoms.

  • Sharing contaminated needles and syringes. 

  • Being affected with other sexually transmitted diseases (STD) such as syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and bacterial vaginosis.

  • Undergoing unsafe blood transfusions.

  • Through an accidental needle stick injury among health care workers.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here’s a list of common questions and answers about HIV/AIDS.

How do you know if you have AIDS?

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AIDS usually refers to the advanced stage of HIV infection. Most people infected with HIV, when left untreated, develop signs of AIDS in 8 to 10 years, where they experience severe bacterial, viral, and fungal infections. A few may also develop rare types of cancers. All these are called opportunistic infections that occur when AIDS sets in.

What is the post-exposure preventive treatment?

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Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatment is a 4-week course of medication taken within a few hours of a probable HIV exposure. Studies indicate that the medicine effectively prevents HIV infection if administered within two hours and no later than 72 hours after HIV exposure.

Why should you take your HIV medicine as prescribed?

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When you take HIV medication (Antiretroviral therapy) as prescribed under your HIV treatment plan, the number of virus particles in your blood (also called your viral load) decreases to an extremely low level. It is known as viral suppression. So, if your viral load is too low that a standard lab test cannot identify HIV, your viral load is deemed undetectable. This indirectly points out that you will live a long, healthy life and will not transmit HIV to other people.

How often should a person be tested for HIV?

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According to CDC, anyone between 13 and 64 must get tested for HIV at least once.

References

  1. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hiv-aids

  2. https://www.unaids.org/en/frequently-asked-questions-about-hiv-and-aids

  3. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/symptoms/

  4. https://doi.org/10.1159/000445852

  5. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/livingwithhiv/newly-diagnosed.html

  6. https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/staying-in-hiv-care/hiv-treatment/tips-on-taking-your-hiv-medication-every-day

  7. https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciq248

  8. http://naco.gov.in/faqs

Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.

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