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View a HIV Fast Facts Slideshow
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the virus responsible for AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Once infected by HIV, the body can never rid itself completely of the virus. Though HIV is a precursor to AIDS, HIV infection does not guarantee the development of AIDS. The HIV virus can lay dormant in the body for years before becoming active, or it may never become active at all. New technologies and treatments have allowed scientists to better control the activity of HIV, making it possible to delay or prevent the development of AIDS.
There are three stages of HIV infection:
STAGE 1: Acute infection. This stage occurs 2-4 weeks after the initial exposure to the virus and is characterized by severe flu-like symptoms. During this time, the virus rapidly reproduces itself within CD4 cells, which are a subtype of white blood cells, and then destroys them, causing blood levels of HIV viruses to rapidly rise and CD4 cells to rapidly fall. High blood levels of the HIV virus make the infected individual highly contagious (though the disease can still only be contracted through contact with infected fluids.) The flu-like symptoms experienced during this stage are referred to as “acute retroviral syndrome” and may include:
STAGE 2: Clinical Latency. During this stage, HIV reproduction slows dramatically. Individuals are still infectious, though their symptoms may decrease or go away entirely. The duration of the clinical latency period varies from patient to patient. Antiretroviral therapy is a form of treatment developed in the late 1980s that has since been found to be extremely effective at lengthening the clinical latency period and delaying the onset AIDS, the third and final stage of an HIV infection. Before antiretroviral therapy, HIV infections typically progressed to AIDS within a few years. With antiretroviral treatment, the progression can take decades or may not occur at all.
STAGE 3: AIDS. (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a syndrome, meaning a collection of symptoms, which occurs in the final stage of HIV infection. HIV infection becomes AIDS once the virus has weakened the immune system enough to allow for a serious ‘opportunistic infections’. The list of possible symptoms produced by AIDS related infections is almost infinite, given the wide range of possible infection types.
The following conditions are the most common of these ‘opportunistic infections’:
The transition from HIV to AIDS can also be determined by CD4 counts in the blood. A healthy adult CD4 count ranges from 500 cells/mm3 to 1,200 cells/mm3. An HIV patient is said to have AIDS once their CD4 count is below 200.
The CDC estimates that more than 1.1 million people in the Unites States are living with HIV infection, though 1 in 6 do not know it. In 2011, an estimated 49,273 new cases of HIV were diagnosed. In the same year, 32,052 new AIDS diagnoses were made. It is estimated that approximately 35 million people are living with HIV infection around the globe. HIV is spread through contact with infected fluids. This transmission most often occurs sexually, though it may also occur through the use of shared needles, consumption of infected breast milk, in utero from mother to fetus, or any other instance of contact with infected body fluids.
AIDS is the last stage of an HIV infection and develops after the HIV virus has caused extensive damage to the immune system.
Once the HIV virus enters the body, the body is unable to get rid of it. The virus can lay dormant for long periods of time before becoming active and attacking the body’s T-cells and CD4 cells. T-cells and CD4 cells are both critical components of the body’s immune response. The transition from HIV to AIDS occurs when the damage to the T-cells and CD4 cells is so extensive that the body develops either one of several opportunistic infections, cancers, or other potentially fatal diseases.
HIV is spread through contact with infected bodily fluids. HIV transmission may occur through:
There are many factors that can influence your risk of contracting HIV. These include:
Several factors may also influence the progression of HIV to aids. These include:
HIV can be diagnosed by a blood test that checks for the presence of HIV-antibodies, proteins that your body produces as a result of HIV infection. For information on where to get tested for HIV, visit National HIV and STD Testing Resources.
AIDS is diagnosed when HIV infection has caused sufficient damage to the T-cells and CD4 cells of the immune system to allow for an opportunistic infection or disease. For a complete list of opportunistic infections and diseases associated with AIDS, visit AIDS.gov. Alternatively, AIDS can be diagnosed by a blood test measuring CD4 cell levels. A healthy adult CD4 count ranges from 500 cells/mm3 to 1,200 cells/mm3. An HIV patient is said to have AIDS once their CD4 count is below 200.
Symptoms of HIV infection vary from stage to stage.
Acute infection symptoms occur 2-4 weeks after exposure to the HIV virus and may not appear for all patients. These include:
Clinical latency. After the acute stage of HIV infection, the disease moves into what is called the “clinical latency” stage. “Latency” means a period where the HIV virus is living or developing in a person, but is not producing symptoms, or only very mild ones. People in this “symptom-free” stage are still able to transmit HIV to others, even if on anti-retroviral medication (though this greatly reduces the risk of transmission).
AIDS. Symptoms of AIDS vary from case to case. According to AIDS.gov, these may include:
The reason that AIDS is so dangerous is that it decimates the immune system to the point that a person is susceptible to certain viruses, bacteria, or parasites that they would, if not infected with the HIV virus, have no reaction to. Those living with HIV/AIDS, however, may face serious health threats from what is referred to as “opportunistic” infections. These infections are called “opportunistic” because they take advantage of the HIV weakened immune system, and can cause devastating illnesses.
Opportunistic infections are the most common cause of death for people with HIV/AIDS.Most life-threatening opportunistic infections occur when your CD4 count is below 200 cells/mm3.
The CDC has developed a list of more than 20 opportunistic infections that are considered “AIDS-defining conditions”—if you have HIV and one or more of these infections, you will be diagnosed with AIDS, no matter what your CD4 count is:
It is essential to understand the signs, symptoms, prevention, and management of opportunistic infections, as they can be so dangerous for a person with HIV/AIDS.
HIV progression rates vary from person to person, but effective treatment (antiretroviral therapy and other modern drugs) slows the progression of HIV in most patients. Due to advancements in diagnostic tests, treatment methods, and medical technologies, most people who are diagnosed with HIV do not progress to AIDS.
Receiving an HIV diagnosis can be difficult, but it is important to remember that an HIV or AIDS diagnosis is not a fatal diagnosis. The following tips can help you live a healthy and happy life with HIV/AIDS:
Since HIV is contagious and benefits from early treatment, regular screening tests for the disease are extremely important. Sexually active individuals between the ages of 13 and 64 should be tested for HIV (and other STDs) once yearly as part of a reproductive health routine. Individuals with multiple sex partners or those that frequently engage in unprotected sex should get tested more frequently (3 to 6 months).
HIV infection can be prevented by proper and regular use of condoms with all sexual partners. Reducing your number of sexual partners can also decrease your risk of contracting HIV. HIV is also commonly spread through the use of contaminated needles. Do not use needles for injections unless both your environment and the needles are sterile. Regular testing for HIV can help you receive prompt treatment in the event that you do contract the virus. Proper treatment for HIV greatly reduces the risk of progression to AIDS.
There are currently over 30 approved drugs to treat HIV infection, with many more being developed in research. Treatment for HIV is generally referred to as antiretroviral therapy or highly active antiretroviral therapy, because it involves a combination of drugs that target the HIV virus at various stages of its life cycle. Antiretroviral therapy involves a combination of several different classes of drugs, including:
Most often treatment plans consist of a mixture of the above medication classes. Speak with your doctor about what classes of medication are right for you and your HIV.
If your HIV infection has progressed to the AIDS stage, your doctor may prescribe you other medications to help prevent infection and control symptoms. These vary widely, as the number of possible infections and symptoms is very large.
There are a number of treatment methods that can serve as an alternative or complement to traditional treatment therapies. Though there is anecdotal evidence to support these methods, there is little scientific data to support the claims. Talk to your doctor before trying any alternative or complementary treatments, as certain supplements and alternative treatments can interfere with prescribed HIV medicines and cause potentially serious side effects.
Caring for a loved one with HIV/AIDS can be challenging. The following tips can help make the experience easier:
If you have had sex (protected or unprotected) with someone you know is infected with HIV, visit a doctor or health clinic to get tested for HIV. To find a testing clinic, visit AIDS.gov.
If you have not yet tested positive for HIV and experience any of the following symptoms, you should visit a doctor or health clinic for testing:
**These symptoms may also be a sign of the common cold or flu among other diseases. Your doctor will be able to best determine the cause of your symptoms.
If you have been diagnosed with HIV and experience the following symptoms, you should contact your doctor. They may be a sign of progression to AIDS:
To find a doctor or health clinic to be tested for HIV, visit AIDS.gov.
To find a doctor who specializes in AIDS treatment, visit The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources.
You may want to ask your doctor the following questions about your HIV diagnosis:
For more information about all things HIV/AIDS, visit www.aids.gov and www.aidsinfonet.org
For the latest HIV research and information, visit www.avert.org
For statistics about HIV and AIDS infection in the U.S., visit The Center for Disease Control.
For more information on HIV transmission and risk factors, visit National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
For a guide to online information about HIV/AIDS, visit www.aidsmap.com
For information on HIV testing centers, visit National HIV and STD Testing Resources
For global statistics on HIV/AIDS, visit The World Health Organization
For information on AIDS treatment and prevention, visit AIDS Info
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