HIV and AIDS
Treating Washington D.C. patients with HIV and AIDS – allowing patients to live long, healthy lives.
The Difference Between HIV And AIDS
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system, interfering with the body’s natural ability to fight off infection and disease. This most commonly spreads through sexual contact, however, it can also spread through contact with infected blood or breast milk.
Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition that develops as a progression of HIV. This is the most severe phase of HIV infection, wherein the body’s immune system is so badly damaged that the person is at an increased risk of developing severe illnesses.
There is currently no cure for HIV and AIDS. Once contracted, the affected individual will have it for life, and it will become more severe and potentially life-threatening if left untreated. However, with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled, allowing patients to live long, healthy lives.
How HIV Spreads
HIV spreads when an individual takes infected blood, semen or vaginal secretions into their own body. In the United States, HIV is primarily spread through sexual contact or by sharing syringes and other injection equipment with someone who is HIV-positive. In some cases, the virus may also be transmitted through blood transfusions. American hospitals and blood banks now screen the blood supply for HIV antibodies, so this risk is very small.
Infected mothers can also pass the virus on to their babies through childbirth or breastfeeding. Mothers who are HIV-positive can significantly lower the risk of transmitting HIV to their babies with the proper treatment.
HIV does not transmit through ordinary contact. You cannot become infected with HIV through kissing, hugging, shaking hands or dancing with someone who has the infection. Similarly, HIV does not spread through the air, water or insects.
Anyone of any age, race, sex or sexual orientation can be infected with HIV. However, those who are at the greatest risk of contracting HIV are those who:
- Engage in unprotected sex, because this increases the chances of exchanging infected body fluids
- Have an STI, because many STIs produce open sores that can act as doorways for HIV to enter your body during sexual contact
- Use injection drugs, because these syringes and injection materials can expose individuals to droplets of other people’s blood
Symptoms of HIV and AIDS
The symptoms of HIV and AIDS will vary depending on the individual and the phase of infection. Some individuals will have flu-like symptoms within 2-4 weeks after infection, usually lasting anywhere between a few days to several weeks. This phase, called acute HIV infection, is when the effects of HIV are the most difficult to detect. Not only are these symptoms shared by far more mundane illnesses like allergies or the common cold, but some HIV-positive patients may not feel sick at all during acute HIV infection.
Possible symptoms of HIV include:
- Night Sweats
- Aching Muscles And Joints
- Swollen Lymph Nodes
- Mouth Ulcers
- Weight Loss
Because these symptoms are shared by other illnesses, and because some patients don’t experience any symptoms whatsoever, it’s all the more important to see a health care provider if you have any of these symptoms and think you may have been exposed to HIV. Getting tested is the only way to truly know whether you are positive for HIV.
The Three Stages Of HIV
When people with HIV are left untreated, the virus will generally phase through three stages, getting more severe and life-threatening with each new stage. However, it’s important to note that HIV treatment and medications can slow and even prevent further progression of the disease. Thanks to modern advancements in medicine, progression all the way to Stage 3 is far less common than it was when HIV first found its way to the United States.
Stage 1, also known as Acute HIV Infection, occurs just after exposure and infection with HIV. This is the time when individuals have a large amount of HIV in their blood and are highly contagious to others. Some will experience flu-like symptoms such as fatigue or sore throat. This is the body’s natural attempt to fight off the infection, but some patients will not feel sick right away, if at all. Only antigen/antibody tests or nucleic acid tests (NATs) can properly diagnose an acute HIV infection.
Stage 2, also known as Chronic HIV Infection, asymptomatic HIV infection or clinical latency, is the next step in the progression of untreated HIV wherein the virus is still active but reproduces at very low levels. Like with acute HIV infection, patients may not experience any symptoms of feeling sick at all during this phase. For many patients, this phase may last a decade or longer without treatment before progressing to AIDS, but this depends on the individual. Those in Phase 2 are still contagious and can transmit HIV to others. If HIV is diagnosed and treated as prescribed during this phase, they may never move on to Stage 3.
At the end of Stage 2, the amount of HIV in the blood goes up and the CD4 cell count goes down. CD4 cells, also known as T-cells, T-lymphocytes or helper cells, are white blood cells that play an important role in the immune system. As the virus levels increase and helper cells decrease, the infected individual may start to feel symptoms as the virus moves into Stage 3.
Stage 3, known as AIDS, is the most severe progression of HIV infection. Typically, HIV will turn into AIDS in about 8 to 10 years when left untreated. When a person has AIDS, their immune systems are so badly damaged that they may contract an increasing number of severe illnesses called opportunistic infections. Those with HIV are considered to have AIDS once their CD4 cell count drops below 200 cells/mm or if they develop certain severe illnesses. As with the previous stages, people with AIDS are very infectious and can easily transmit the disease to others. Without treatment, people with AIDS typically survive around three years.
Prevention And Treatment of HIV and AIDS
There is currently no vaccine to prevent HIV infection, nor is there currently a cure for AIDS. However, there are ways to protect yourself and your partner from infection. Here are some ways to protect yourself from developing HIV and AIDS, as well as some ways to protect others if you are HIV-positive.
Protecting Yourself From HIV/AIDS
- Use a new condom every time you have sex. Ensure that you are always protected in any experience involving sexual contact. Women may use female condoms as well. When using lubrication, make sure it is water-based, as oil-based lubricants can weaken condoms and cause them to break or tear. Use nonlubricated, cut-open condoms or dental dams when engaging in oral sex.
- Use clean needles. If you use a needle for injection drugs, take steps to ensure the needle is sterile and do not share it with others. However, the best way to prevent contraction through illicit drug use is to seek help in quitting.
- Consider male circumcision. There is evidence to suggest that male circumcision can help to reduce the risk of contracting HIV.
- Take Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). If you are at high risk of contracting HIV, you can take this combination of drugs to help reduce your risk of contracting sexually transmitted HIV by more than 90% and injection-related HIV transmissions by more than 70%.
- Use Post-exposure Prophylaxis (PEP). If you think you’ve already been exposed to HIV through sex, needles or in the workplace, take PEP as soon as possible and within the first 72 hours after exposure to reduce your risk of becoming infected.
Protecting Others from HIV/AIDS
- Tell your sexual partners you have HIV. It is important to tell all of your current and past sexual partners that you are HIV-positive and encourage them to get tested. This is essential to keep your partner(s) and former partners safe and prevent further spread of the disease.
- Use treatment as prevention (TasP). If you’re living with HIV, taking HIV medication will not only help slow the progression of the disease, but it can also help keep your partner from becoming infected with the virus. If your viral load becomes undetectable through treatment, you will not be able to transmit the virus to anyone else.
- If you’re pregnant, seek medical care immediately. Women who are HIV-positive may pass the infection on to their baby. However, if you receive treatment during pregnancy, you can significantly reduce the risk of transmitting the disease to your child.
If you or someone you know is seeking testing or treatment for HIV/AIDS, contact Washington Health Institute for care either online or over the phone at 202-525-5175.