The Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which is also commonly known as HIV, has gained worldwide attention within the last few decades. HIV is the virus that leads to AIDS. The virus is quite similar to other viruses, like those that result in a cold or flu. The difference is that over time, the immune system can rid itself of most viruses. However, this is not the case with HIV. Once an individual has contracted the HIV virus, it will remain with the individual for the remainder of the person’s life. HIV is part of the genus Lentivirus and is a member of the Retroviridae family.
As the virus remains in the body, it attacks the immune system by destroying CD4+ T cells (white blood cells). Once too many CD4+ T cells have been destroyed, it is virtually impossible for the body to fight off any infections. Presently, two types of HIV exist: HIV-1 and HIV-2. HIV-1 is the most common form of the virus and HIV-2 cases rarely exist within the US. There is a significant genetic difference between the two subtypes, and HIV-2 cases have not been seen outside of Africa.
Not all individuals that have HIV will see a progression to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Prior to medical advancement, HIV was expected to progress into AIDS within a few years. Presently, people are living much longer (even decades) with the HIV virus. Without any medical treatment, individuals with HIV may be subjected to some very serious infections. Once the body becomes immune deficient, then AIDS begins to develop.
Individuals infected with HIV during the early stages of the virus do not usually have any obvious symptoms. However, infected individuals are still able to transmit the virus to other individuals. The virus can be transmitted during sexual intercourse, blood transfusions, a mother’s breast milk, or vaginal fluids. In the U.S., HIV is mainly transmitted through sexual intercourse and the sharing of needles. Although it is possible to transmit HIV through oral sex, it is not known to occur as frequently as the above-listed transmission methods. It is very difficult for HIV to survive outside of the body, and it does not spread simply by kissing, hugging, touching surfaces, or via other casual contact with an infected person where body fluids are not present.
Most individuals who are infected with the virus experience flu-like symptoms within two months of contracting the virus. Some common symptoms of the infection may include night sweats, frequent fevers, chills, weakness, headache, sore throat, joint pain, diarrhea, swollen glands, weight loss, and rashes. A varying number of infected individuals will also experience other opportunistic infections during these early stages. Although there is presently no cure for AIDS or HIV, early treatment options can prolong life.
Once a person is infected with HIV, the virus slowly begins destroying the individual’s immune system. A combination of Antiretroviral drugs along with treatments that enhance the immune system have enabled many individuals with HIV to live longer lives than what was possible even 20 years ago. Because there is no cure for HIV or AIDS, educating individuals on preventive techniques is the only way to minimize the spread of the disease. The most recognized method of prevention is avoiding blood to blood contact and practicing safe sex by using condoms. A helpful HIV/AIDS prevention article can be found here.
The only way an individual can positively know if he or she has HIV/AIDS is to get tested. If you think you may have HIV, you may want to contact one of your local testing sites; these can be located by performing a simple internet search. Most healthcare providers and community health centers offer testing, some free of charge. There are also FDA approved home test kits that can be purchased at many drug stores. You may also visit aids.gov for additional information about HIV and AIDS and to locate a testing site near you.
image courtesy of C. Goldsmith Content Providers: CDC/ C. Goldsmith, P. Feorino, E. L. Palmer, W. R. McManus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons