Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks disease-fighting cells (T cells) and damages your immune system. HIV occurs in stages and, if left untreated, can lead to the final stage of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which can be fatal.
There are 3 stages of HIV:
Acute HIV occurs 2–4 weeks after infection and generally presents with flu-like symptoms, which can include:
- Achy joints and muscles
- Red rash on the torso
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph glands, mainly on the neck
Due to the similarities to flu, many people do not know that they have been infected during the first stage. Additionally, during the acute stage the presence of virus in the blood is extremely high. The combination of these two factors causes the infection to be incredibly contagious.
Most people do not show symptoms during this stage, but the virus will continue to destroy your immune system. As time goes on and the virus continues to multiply, you may begin to see symptoms similar to those of stage 1. Additional symptoms may include:
- Weight loss
- Oral yeast infection (thrush)
- Shingles (herpes zoster)
Without treatment, HIV will generally progress to AIDS about 10 years after infection. Symptoms may include:
- Soaking night sweats
- Swollen lymph nodes in your neck or groin area
- Recurring and lengthy fevers
- Chronic diarrhea
- Persistent white spots or unusual lesions on your tongue or in your mouth
- Constant fatigue
- Weight loss
- Purple-ish skin rashes or bumps
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained bruises or bleeding
There is no cure for HIV, but there are medications that can treat symptoms and delay the progression of the infection. With daily antiretroviral therapy, HIV can be a manageable condition, prolonging or eliminating the progression to AIDS. Treatment plans are determined by your healthcare provider on a case-by-case basis. It may take some trial and error to find the best treatment for you. Without treatment, you will likely develop AIDS, which can be fatal within a few years. However, even if your infection progresses to the final stage, there is medication available to manage the disease and allow you to live a generally healthy and long life.
Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP)
If taken within 72 hours of exposure, there is medication that may prevent HIV infection. PEP is to be used only in emergency situations, not by people who are in a continually high-risk category.
Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP)
If you are at high risk of contracting HIV (such as sex workers, IV drug users, someone with risky sexual practices, or are in a sexual relationship with an HIV-positive person), you can take a daily pill to lower your risk of exposure.
When to Seek Medical Attention
If you believe you’ve been exposed to the HIV virus, seek medical attention immediately. Medication is available that, if taken within 72 hours of infection, may prevent infection. It can take up to 3 months after infection for HIV symptoms to develop. If you begin experiencing symptoms associated with HIV, seek medical attention. HIV is diagnosed with blood or saliva tests
Causes & Prevention
HIV can be spread through:
- Vaginal, oral, or anal sex
- Semen, pre-ejaculate, vaginal or rectal secretions, or blood infected with the virus must enter your body
- Contact with infected blood:
- Blood transfusions (screening makes this very rare)
- Sharing needles and syringes, such as those used for intravenous drugs with an infected person
- Pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding
- Treatments exist to lower the risk of infected mothers passing the infection to their babies
As with all STIs, the only way to avoid all risk of infection if to abstain from sex (vaginal, anal, and oral) and intimate skin-to-skin contact.
If you are sexually active:
- Use condoms and/or dental dams consistently every time you have sex (anal, oral, or vaginal)
- Communicate with your partner(s) about STIs, testing and using condoms and/or dental dams.
- If using sex toys, follow the instructions on how to clean them properly after each use. If they have no batteries/electrical wires, wash with soap and water and allow to dry.
If you are an intravenous drug user, use a clean, sterile needle every time. If you are at high risk of contracting HIV (such as sex workers, IV drug users, someone with risky sexual practices, or in a sexual relationship with an HIV-positive person), you can take a PrEP, which is a daily pill to lower your risk of exposure.