You may have read about HIV/AIDS but you still may be thinking that only drug users or people who sleep around can get HIV and AIDS — not true. As the saying goes, “HIV does not discriminate.” Anyone, no matter where you live, if you’re a guy or girl, straight or gay, young or old, black, white, Hispanic or any other race, can get HIV/AIDS.
What are HIV and AIDS?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The virus attacks a person’s immune system, especially the white blood cells (also called “T-cells”). The immune system is the body’s way of fighting off infections. If somebody is infected with HIV, his/her immune system gets weaker and the body can’t fight against infections as well. This means that a person can become sick more easily. If people with HIV do not take medications or good care of themselves, HIV gets stronger and their immune system gets weaker.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. When a person with HIV gets more serious infections because of a weak immune system, they are said to have AIDS. People with AIDS can get sick from diseases that do not usually affect people with a strong immune system. One of these diseases is Kaposi Sarcoma (KS), a rare type of skin cancer. Another is a type of pneumonia called Pneumcystis Carinii Pneumonia (PCP). It is important to know that not all people with HIV get AIDS.
Who gets HIV/AIDS?
All people who put themselves at risk for HIV can get it. The mains ways of getting HIV are by having unprotected sex or by sharing needles and syringes with a person who has HIV. Babies can be born with the virus if their mother is infected. In the past, people could get HIV from an infected blood transfusion, but today the risk for this is very, very, low since all donated blood is tested for the HIV virus.
How is HIV spread?
For HIV to spread from an infected person to another person two things are needed: 1) an infected bodily fluid and 2) a way into the other person’s bloodstream.
There are four bodily fluids that can transmit HIV:
- Vaginal Fluids
- Breast Milk
The most common ways that HIV can get into another person’s bloodstream to cause infection are:
- Sharing needles
- Having unprotected sex (without a condom)
- Small tears in the vagina and anus from vaginal and anal sex
- Through the tube of the penis, called the urethra, which carries fluids to the outside of the body
- Open sores and irritations from other STIs
HIV can be spread through vaginal, oral, and anal sex. It can also be spread through sharing needles with an infected person. HIV can also be passed from an infected pregnant woman to her baby before or during birth and during breast-feeding.
HIV is not spread by touching, hugging, or shaking hands with an infected person. Coughing, sneezing, sharing glasses and dishes, touching toilets or doorknobs, do not spread the virus. Pets and biting insects, such as mosquitoes, do not spread the virus. Donating blood does not spread HIV either. This is because a new needle is used for each donor, so you never come in contact with another person's blood.
What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?
Some people get an illness within 6 weeks of HIV infection with the following symptoms:
- Swollen glands
- Aching joints and muscles
- Sore throat
When HIV becomes AIDS, a person may have any of the following symptoms:
- Fever lasting longer than one month
- Weight loss
- Extreme tiredness
- Diarrhea for longer than 1 month
- Swollen glands
- Unclear thinking
- No sense of balance
What should I do if I think I have HIV or AIDS?
If you think you are infected with HIV, if you've been exposed to someone whom you suspect or know to be HIV positive, or if you have symptoms, get tested and see your health care provider right away. The earlier you get tested and treated (if you are positive), the better. Getting treatment can slow down the progress of the HIV infection and may even prevent you from getting AIDS. Knowing your HIV status will also help you make decisions about protecting yourself and others.
How is HIV diagnosed?
HIV is diagnosed using three main tests:
- Standard blood test - (EIA or ELISA Tests) This type of blood test takes about 2 weeks to get the results. Blood is drawn once from the arm.
- Western Blot - If the Standard blood test is positive for HIV antibodies, the Western Blot test is done. If this test comes back positive, a person has HIV.
- Rapid tests (fingerstick and oral tests) - Both tests take about 20 minutes to get the results.
1. Blood test is a fingerstick; a small amount of blood is taken from the tip of the finger and mixed in a solution.
2. Oral test - a small amount of saliva from a person's mouth is obtained using a cotton swab that looks like a toothbrush.
If either rapid test is positive, the Western Blot test is done to confirm that the person is HIV positive.
There is another test available for home use:
- The Home Access KitŪ - This test has been approved by the Food Drug Administration (FDA). You can buy it at most pharmacies without a prescription. This is also a "fingerstick" blood test. You prick your finger and place a drop of blood on a card that comes with the kit. You send the card to a lab and you can then get the results by phone in 1-3 days.
What does a "false negative" test result mean?
If you are tested too soon after being exposed to HIV, it is possible that you can get a "false negative". This is because it can take 12 weeks or longer from the time of exposure for the HIV test to become positive. It is usually recommended that you have the test repeated after 3 months to make sure that you are truly negative. It is important to know that a "reactive" or a "positive" test result is not a diagnosis. Only a health care provider can diagnose HIV.
What about sex partners?
If you have HIV, then you need to tell all current and previous sex partners or anyone you've shared needles with so they can get tested. If you feel that you can't tell these people, then talk to your health care provider. They have ways to let people know they may have been exposed without saying who gave them the information.
How is HIV/AIDS treated?
Right now, there is no cure for HIV infection or AIDS. It is a chronic illness. The virus stays in your body for the rest of your life. The virus has been treated with a combination of three different drugs which together work to keep the virus quiet so the immune system can stay strong. People with HIV must take medication at specific times and never miss doses. Following your health care provider's treatment plan is extremely important. Your health care provider may also tell you to eat healthy foods, exercise, and lower any stress in your life.
How can I avoid getting HIV?
The best ways to avoid getting HIV are to not have sex and not sharing needles. If you do decide to have sex - make sure that both you and your partner get tested before you have sex, and always practice safe sex. Also, make sure that both you and your partner get tested and treated (if necessary) for other STIs before having sex.
You can also avoid getting HIV by:
- Limiting the number of sexual partners that you have
- Make sure you use a condom correctly every time you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex
- Use sterile needles when using IV Drugs, getting tattoos, or piercings. Don’t use anything that pierces your skin unless you are sure it has been fully sterilized.
- Don't share personal items such as razors and toothbrushes. They could have blood on them which can carry the virus (if the blood is from someone who happens to be HIV positive).
If you're concerned about HIV, here's a tip on how to bring it up with your health care provider: Should I get tested for HIV?
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