What Is HIV?

HIV is a virus known as human immunodeficiency virus. HIV is the virus that leads to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). This is a disease that changes a person’s immune system, making them more susceptible to infection and disease. AIDS is a progressive disease that gets worse with time.

What Causes HIV?

HIV is a virus that infects the organs and vital cells of an individual’s immune system. This viral infection can be transmitted through infected blood, during sexual contact, and passed from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding.

The HIV virus attacks T-cells (CD4 cells) that are largely responsible for assisting the body in fighting off infection and disease. When HIV reaches an advanced stage, it can turn into AIDS. While it is possible to have the HIV virus without it progressing into AIDS, without treatment it will get progressively worse. In most cases, the virus will develop into the disease.

How Is HIV Transmitted?

There are several ways the HIV virus can be transmitted to others. These include:

  • Sexual Conduct: A person can become infected through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with a person carrying the disease. The infected partner can transfer the virus through semen, vaginal secretions, or blood. HIV can get into a person’s body through mouth sores or small tears in the vagina or rectum that sometimes occur during sexual intercourse.
  • Shared Needles: Intravenous drug users run the risk of developing HIV if they share a needle or syringe contaminated with the blood of an infected individual.
  • Blood Transfusions: While a rare occurrence, a blood transfusion can cause HIV. A person who is given blood that contains the HIV virus is at high risk for attaining it themselves.
  • Mothers Passing to Children: Mothers who are infected with HIV have a high possibility of passing the HIV virus to their children. This can happen in the womb, during birth, or while breastfeeding. Receiving treatment for HIV while pregnant significantly lowers the risk the baby will contract the virus.

HIV is not airborne and cannot be transmitted through water. It cannot be passed through contact such as hugging, shaking hands, or kissing. Insect bites also do not cause HIV.


Symptoms of HIV

Because HIV is a progressive virus, symptoms will vary depending on how long a person has been infected. Following are the most common symptoms of HIV in relation to the phase of the infection:

Acute HIV

This is when symptoms start, typically 1-2 months after a person has attained the virus. Symptoms are similar to the flu and can last for 3 weeks or more. They include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Rash
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Swollen lymph nodes in neck
  • Sore throat

Although the virus is at its primary phase of infection, it is known to spread more quickly during this time as the viral load in the body is at a high level.

Chronic HIV

This is known as clinical latent infection. There are no specific symptoms at this stage, but lymph nodes can be persistently swollen. This phase of HIV typically lasts around 10 years in individuals who are not taking antiretroviral medications. For those who do receive antiretroviral therapy, this phase of HIV can last for decades.

Early Symptomatic HIV

As the virus never leaves the body, it will continue to get worse and destroy immune cells. This can manifest as signs and symptoms that include:

  • Swollen lymph nodes (one of the first signs)
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhoea
  • Thrush (oral yeast infection)
  • Shingles
  • Fever
  • Fatigue

When Does HIV Progress to AIDS?

When a person does not receive treatment for HIV, the virus will typically develop into AIDS within 10 years. When AIDS has developed, the immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus. This can cause several different infections with symptoms such as:

  • Recurring fever
  • Night sweats
  • Persistent fatigue that does not go away
  • Weight Loss
  • Chronic diarrhoea
  • Skin rashes
  • Bumps on the skin

Treatment for HIV

HIV is a virus for which there is no cure. There are a variety of drugs that can be taken together to help control the virus. Each class of HIV drug blocks the virus in a different way. It is most effective to take at least three types of drugs from two classes. Classes of HIV drugs include:

  • Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs)
  • Protease inhibitors (PIs)
  • Nucleoside or nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs)
  • Integrase inhibitors
  • Entry or fusion inhibitors

Treatment for HIV can be a difficult experience. There are several side-effects caused by HIV medications. These can include: heart disease, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, weakening of the bones or bone loss, high blood sugar, and breakdown of the muscle tissue.

Anyone who has been infected by the HIV virus should take antiviral medication. The following situations are especially important in receiving treatment:

  • A CD4 count under 350
  • Pregnant mothers
  • Those experiencing severe symptoms
  • Those with an HIV-related kidney disease
  • Individuals being treated for hepatitis b or c

Frequently Asked Questions about HIV

How long does it take HIV to become AIDS?

The average time it takes HIV to develop into AIDS is 8-11 years. HIV affects everyone differently however, and the length of time it takes is dependent on several different factors which include a person’s health and behaviours.

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?

HIV is considered the virus, while AIDS is the condition caused by the virus.

How long after exposure should a person wait to get tested?

The HIV virus will typically appear within 3 months after a person has been infected. In rare cases, it can take up to six months.

External Links

What is HIV?, US Department of Veterans Affairs

HIV and AIDS: Causes, symptoms, and treatments, Christian Nordqvist, Reviewed by Thomas D. Chiampas, Pharm.D., BCPS, AAHIVP, MedicalNewsToday


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