What is it?
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that can be transmitted from person to person via exposure to blood and specific body fluids such as semen, pre-seminal fluid, breast milk, rectal fluid, vaginal fluid and plasma. In the body, HIV attacks certain cells of the immune system and, over time, causes immune cell destruction so that body can’t fight off certain infections and/or cancers. When the opportunistic infections or cancers take advantage of the weakened immune system the condition has progressed to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Without treatment, nearly all cases of AIDS are fatal, but with early detection and treatment, most people with HIV can live a normal lifespan and rarely develop AIDS.
What are the symptoms?
Most people appear and feel healthy early in the course of HIV infection, but can still spread the virus to others who come in contact with the infected person’s blood or body fluids. Many persons with HIV infection are unaware of their status and unknowingly spread HIV to others. Some people experience a flu-like illness within 2-4 weeks of initial HIV infection, causing symptoms such as a high fever, severe fatigue, lymph node swelling and skin rash. Other people don’t have any symptoms when they first contract HIV. As HIV progresses into AIDS, people develop severe illnesses of many parts of the body.
How is HIV or AIDS transmitted?
HIV is transferred from one person to another through blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, breast milk, rectal fluid, or vaginal fluid. Activities that are high risk to spread HIV include:
- Anal or vaginal sex with someone with HIV without a condom
- Sharing needles or syringes to inject drugs
HIV is NOT spread by air or water, saliva, sweat or tears, insects or pets, or sharing toilets, food or drinks.
How is HIV or AIDS diagnosed?
The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested at least once. There are 3 types of tests available:
- Antigen/Antibody test—this is a screening blood test that looks for HIV antibodies and antigens. Antibodies are made by the body after exposure to bacteria or viruses like HIV. Antigens are substances that activate the immune system.
- Rapid or home tests—most of these are antibody tests. These are screening tests with blood from a finger prick or oral fluid. If you ever get a positive result from an antibody test, you need to take a follow up test to confirm the results.
- Nucleic Acid Tests (NAT)—this looks for the actual virus in the blood. This test is quite expensive and is not used for screening unless there is concern about a recent high risk exposure and symptoms of acute HIV infection. Taking pre-exposure prophylaxis or post-exposure prophylaxis can reduce the accuracy of this test if you have HIV.
Some people opt to get tested for HIV on a regular basis if they are changing sexual partners or welcoming new partners into their relationship. The Student Health Center is happy to help with HIV testing.
How do I prevent getting HIV?
- Abstinence (not having sex)
- Limiting number of sexual partners can decrease risk of HIV acquisition
- Using condoms correctly every time you have sex
- Never share needles if you use intravenous drugs
- Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP)—this is a medication that can be taken daily to reduce the risk of getting infected by over 90%. The Student Health Center offers PrEP prescriptions.
- Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP)—people who have potentially been exposed to HIV can take antiviral medications within 72 hours of exposure to prevent HIV. This is only used in emergency situations of high risk exposures. The Student Health Center offers PEP prescriptions.
How is HIV risk linked to other Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)?
Having an STD can increase your chances of getting HIV. The behaviors that put someone at risk for one type of STD often put them at risk for other infections. These behaviors include not using condoms, multiple partners, anonymous partners, and having sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Also, STDs and HIV tend to be linked, so getting one STD suggests that the transmitting partner is at risk for other STDs including HIV. Lastly, the inflammation or sores from STDs can make it easier for HIV infection to be transmitted across the broken skin. People with HIV are more likely to shed HIV when they have irritation or sores from STDs as well. Syphillis is particularly closely linked to HIV.
How is HIV or AIDS treated?
HIV and AIDS are not curable. Early detection of HIV or AIDS is essential to effectively treat these infections. Once a person is diagnosed with HIV, they are referred to a specialist to prescribe medicines called antiretroviral therapy (ART). These medicines slow the progression of the virus in the body and reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others. ART is usually a combination of 3 or more medications, and must be taken exactly as prescribed to be the most effective.
It is important for people with HIV and AIDS to be aware of the risk of infections that can occur in people with weak immune systems, called opportunistic infections.
Where can I find more information about HIV and AIDS?
Being diagnosed with HIV can cause significant emotional upset. You are not alone. Talking to a counselor, medical provider or trusted friend may help. Early detection and treatment are the key to managing HIV to live a safer, healthier, longer life and reduce transmission to others.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) does an excellent job of providing information on HIV and AIDS related topics. on their website.
Topics of relevance to HIV and AIDS that are addressed by the CDC include the following: