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What is HIV? What is AIDS?

Human Immunodeficiency Virus - also called HIV - is a virus that targets the immune system of the body leaving people prone to several opportunistic infections as well as cancers.

Unlike other illnesses, HIV in itself is not a disease. But the constant barrage of the virus on a person’s immune system leads to a chronic and progressive illness where the human body is unable to fight infection and increases the risk for developing illnesses that a person wouldn't otherwise contract. At this stage, the disease is known as AIDS – Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.

Normally, it takes over a decade to progress from an HIV infection to becoming a patient with the AIDS disease. Since, HIV is the virus that causes the break-down of the immune system – it is also known as the AIDS Virus.

Early cases of AIDS were first discovered by doctors in the 80’s. In a quest to understand the AIDS disease, scientists stumbled upon the Human Immunodeficiency Virus in 1985. People infected with HIV are often termed as HIV+, HIV Positive or even Seropositive for HIV. A Positive test implies that the body has been infected and that the person is capable of transmitting it to other people.

How is AIDS & HIV Transmitted or Spread?

HIV cannot survive outside the human body. The virus sets shop in body fluids that contain white blood cells – specifically the “T” cells in the bloodstream that are the brain behind our entire immune system. When any exchange of bodily fluids (Blood, Breast Milk, Semen and Vaginal secretions) takes place, the HIV infection can be transmitted. The virus passes from an infected person to another when the his/her bodily fluid comes in contact with broken skin, a cut or a mucous membrane. Mucous membranes are the soft, thin tissue lining that covers the major body orifices such as the nose, eyes, mouth, vaginal walls, the rectum and the tip of the penis.

Five ways that HIV is transmitted:

  1. Through Sexual Contact - Unprotected sex with an HIV-infected person increases risk of contracting the virus – Vaginal, Oral and Anal sex with an HIV+ person; all expose the uninfected person, if he/she is not adequately protected by a condom or a barrier.

  2. Through Needles - Needle sharing by drug addicts often leads to HIV transmission, if one or more persons are already infected. This is also an occupational hazard. People working in medical profession, health care who need to handle injections in their everyday work should be very careful that they aren’t accidentally struck with an infected needle. Use of unsterilized needles used for acupuncture, body art, tattoos, skin piercing, etc. also transmit the infected blood.

  3. Through blood transfusion - Though there are strict rules in place since March, 1985 – blood transfusion for accident patients, and treatment of blood-related diseases like Hemophilia also causes the transmission of HIV infection.

  4. Through Mothers - Pregnant mothers who are HIV+ can pass on the virus to their children. Breastfeeding by infected mothers also exposes the infant to the HIV virus and can lead to infection.

  5. Through Organ transplant - Organ donors who are HIV+ can pass on their infection to the recipient of their organs. Since 1985, almost all reputed hospitals screen for HIV before a transplant, but there are some spurious places that don’t follow the set guidelines.

Common misconceptions about "Catching AIDS"

HIV is not air borne. AIDS cannot be transmitted or caught like common cold. You can become infected with HIV, if you come in contact with bodily fluid of an infected person. This infection in turn corrodes your immune system and makes you susceptible to chronic diseases and at this stage your illness is termed as AIDS. You cannot be infected with AIDS by being in close proximity to an HIV + person, shaking hands with them or even sharing a toilet seat with them. AIDS/HIV is not transmitted through mosquito bites

HIV & AIDS Symptoms in Adults

In the early stages of HIV infection there aren’t too many outward symptoms - be it in men or women. There are associated flu-like signs that last a few weeks and often mistaken for influenza or tonsillitis. HIV symptoms are often confusing, but what you’ve got to remember is that HIV in itself does not cause any disease. But the virus breaks down your resistance to other bacteria, virus and fungi. So, in effect what you experience as symptoms are effects of these invading, disease causing germs.

Early to latent stage of HIV Infection

  • Immune System Symptoms - Swelling of lymph nodes especially in the neck and groin, high fever, headaches, tiredness and night sweats

Early AIDS symptoms - at the initial stage of progression from being HIV infected to AIDS disease

  • Gastrointestinal Symptoms - Body ache and fatigue, rapid weight loss, loss of appetite, lack of energy and diarrhea.
  • External symptoms on skin and mucous layers - Skin rash, purplish red lesions on skin, flaky skin, abscesses
  • Neurological symptoms – short-term memory loss, confusion

Later AIDS symptoms – when the person becomes a full-blown AIDS patient and his immune system is completely under attack leading to several life threatening diseases.

  • Respiratory Symptoms –Shortness of breath, dry cough often indicative of bacterial pneumonia, Seizures, painful breathing and swallowing.
  • Neurological symptoms - Peripheral neuropathy (tingling and burning sensation of hands and feet), depression, disorientation and confusion, forgetfulness, memory loss
  • External symptoms on skin and mucous layers –Skin rash, purplish red lesions on skin, canker sores, ulcers, white patches inside the mouth, on the gums and tongue, vaginal yeast and bacterial Vaginosis in women, flaky skin, abscesses
  • Vision loss
  • Lymphoma
  • Kaposi’s Sarcoma
  • Cervical Cancer (in women)
  • Coma

HIV & AIDS Symptoms in Infants:

Symptoms in infants:

  • Delayed development and failure to thrive
  • Delayed crawling/walking/speaking
  • Poor weight gain and growth
  • Neurological problems
  • Seizures
  • Symptoms of HIV encephalopathy
  • Pink eye, Ear infections & Tonsillitis
  • Persistent diarrhea

How to Prevent AIDS? Prevent HIV?

How can I prevent an HIV infection? Abstinence is the only way to prevent the transmission of any sexually transmitted disease. If you are sexually active, condoms are a helpful preventative measure if used correctly each time. The risk of infection for any STD, including AIDS & HIV, is significantly lowered if you both you and your partner have been tested, and are only having sex with each other. People who engage in risky sexual behavior, having sex with people they don't know, or don't know very well, are at a much greater risk for contracting STDs. People who regularly use drugs and alcohol are at a higher risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS & HIV, because they are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior. Please read more about STD transmission and prevention here.

How to Treat AIDS? How to Treat HIV?

No cure or vaccine for HIV has been developed, till date. Once you are infected you carry the virus in your blood for life. However, medical advances have helped create a whole range of treatments and medication that try to deter the build up of the HIV virus and to help you stay healthy as long as possible.

The inhibitors mentioned below are common medications prescribed by doctors to reduce the build up of HIV virus. But once HIV turns into full blown AIDS, the treatment depends on the illness that has affected you. For example, if it is Cervical Cancer or Lymphoma – you may be referred to a cancer specialist who will design an appropriate treatment method along with combination treatments for bolstering your immune system.

HIV Treatments:

  1. Integrase Inhibitors: Integrase is an enzyme in the body that helps integrate the genetic material of HIV into the DNA of our "T" cells - the immune system power cells. This integration helps the infected cell to make multiple copies of itself, further weakening the immune system. As the name suggests, these inhibitors stop the HIV genetic material from imprinting itself onto the "T" cells DNA, thus arresting the replication of the virus.

  2. Entry Inhibitors: Similar to Integrase inhibitors, they arrest replication of the infected cells by blocking the entry of HIV into a "T" cell.

  3. NNRTIs: Non-nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitor work by binding themselves to the enzyme called reverse transcriptase thereby preventing healthy cells from being infected by stopping the viral RNA from converting to viral DNA.

  4. Protease Inhibitors: Protease Inhibitors stop the replication of HIV infected cells by inhibiting an enzyme called Protease. Protease is an enzyme that is needed by the HIV Virus to chop itself into tiny pieces and replicate. By inhibiting this enzyme, incomplete and defective copies of the virus are made and these in turn will not be able to infect healthy cells.

  5. NRTIs: Nucleoside Reverse Transciptase Inhibitors reduce the production of the reverse transcriptase enzyme. This reduces the replication process of the HIV virus thus saving the healthy cells.

Many doctors give a combination pill that contains one or more of these inhibitors to help you fight the HIV Virus.

What should I expect from my doctor?

If you are going for an HIV test here's a list of questions that you can expect from your doctor

    Questions about your sex life:
    • Have you had unprotected sex with any of your partners?
    • Do you know if your partner is HIV positive?
    • Do you have any STDs?
    • For women: Are you or could you be pregnant?
    Questions if you have a drug problem:
      o Have you shared needles? Do you know if your partners are HIV positive?
    Questions about your symptoms
    • What symptoms are you experiencing?
    • What medication are you taking?
    • Do you have any pre-existing health condition?

Most doctors administer an HIV test by taking a blood or urine sample. Test results are normally available within 25 days. An HIV test looks for antibodies that your body produces to fight the HIV. So, in rare cases, even if you are infected there may not be any antibodies for over 6 months. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you test yourself 6 months after your last exposure.

While we are able to assist in identifying common symptoms and effects of STDs we are not a replacement for the advice of a medical professional. If you believe you may be infected please see a doctor immediately. If you are experiencing a Medical Emergency Call 911
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