HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). HIV attacks the body’s immune system. The immune system is the body’s defense against infections. With time, HIV weakens your bodyâ€™s ability to fight off serious infections and some cancers. When this happens, HIV infection becomes AIDS. AIDS can be life threatening, but it is also a preventable disease.
The full effects of the infection may not show up until 5 to 10 years after you are infected with the virus. New treatments help people to live longer with the disease.
What is the cause?
The infection-fighting cells of the immune system are a type of white blood cell called CD4 cells or T-helper cells. Months to years after infection with HIV, the virus begins to destroy these cells. HIV infection becomes AIDS when so many of the CD4 cells are destroyed that you lose your ability to fight off serious infections or tumors. Various infections called opportunistic infections develop. They are called opportunistic because they take advantage of your weakened immune system. These infections would not normally cause severe or fatal health problems. However, when you have AIDS, the infections and tumors are more serious and are harder to treat successfully.
HIV spreads from person to person when infected blood or sexual secretions, such as semen, enter the body. Men, women, and children of all ages can get HIV. You can get infected with HIV through:
Needles used by anyone other than you, for example, while doing drugs, checking your blood sugar or getting a tattoo
Transfusion of blood or blood products in countries where donated blood is not carefully tested
Babies can get infected before they are born or from the breast milk of an infected mother.
HIV is not spread through the air, in food, or by casual social contact such as shaking hands or hugging.
What are the symptoms?
It is important to remember that HIV usually does not cause any symptoms for many months or even a couple years. When you do start having symptoms, they are usually the symptoms of the other infections or tumors that are able to attack the body because of the HIV infection:
Loss of appetite or weight
Nausea and vomiting
Sores on the skin or mouth
Repeated, severe infections in the mouth or vagina despite treatment
Muscle and joint pain
Blurry vision or other problems with vision
AIDS can also affect the heart and cause:
Inflammation of the heart muscle, which makes it harder for the heart to pump
An enlarged and weakened heart muscle
Inflammation of the sac around the heart, which may cause chest pain or a buildup of fluid around the heart. Pressure from the fluid may make it harder for the heart to pump blood.
Infection of the tissue that lines the inside of the heart, which can also severely damage the heart valves
How is it diagnosed?
Tests for HIV are done in 2 steps.
The first step is a screening test of your blood or saliva. If this test is negative, it usually means that you don’t have HIV. However, it is possible to have a negative test if you have just recently been infected with the virus. If you have a negative test result but you are at high risk for infection, you may need to have this test again in 3 to 6 months.
If the screening test is positive, it means that you are probably infected with HIV. A second, more specific blood test is then done to confirm the results.
Having an HIV test at your healthcare providerâ€™s office or a clinic takes just a few minutes.
At your home, you can use a test kit that you can buy at most pharmacies or drug stores. Look for a test that is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Other tests may not give you reliable results. Tests include:
A blood test that uses a small sample of blood from a prick of your finger. You mail the sample to a lab, where a healthcare professional will test the sample for HIV. In about a week, you can call a toll-free number to get your test results.
A mouth swab test, which shows your results in just a few minutes.
Once you have confirmed positive HIV test results, your provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Your healthcare provider will also ask about your history of sexual practices and infections and any history of drug abuse. When you test positive for HIV, the results are reported (without giving your name) to the local health department and your sexual partner(s). This will help your partner(s) get prompt testing and treatment for the infection. It can also help prevent new infections.
You will also be tested for other infections that can get worse when you have HIV or AIDS.
To check for heart problems, you may have an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves (ultrasound) to see how well your heart is pumping.
How is it treated?
Medicines can slow down the disease, but they are not a cure. Many new drug treatments and combinations are being prescribed. You may need to have lab tests every few weeks or months to see how the virus is affecting your body and how well your treatment is working. Your treatment for HIV/AIDS may include treatment or prevention of other types of infections and tumors.
Heart problems caused by AIDS may be treated with medicines. If you have fluid around your heart, the fluid may need to be removed. Valve problems may be treated with surgery.
Getting care in an office or clinic that offers case management can be an important part of your treatment. This means a team of providers will be giving you care and your care will be coordinated by a case manager. The case manager will help you communicate with all who are caring for you. Other advantages include:
Up-to-date medical care
Treatment for both the medical and social aspects of your illness
Help in finding medical, social, and financial resources
How can I take care of myself?
If you have HIV or AIDS, there are things you can do to take care of yourself and help prevent problems.
Learn about your condition and your treatment options. Discuss your treatment with your healthcare provider.
Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Know what to do if you miss a dose.
See your provider on a regular schedule to keep up to date on new treatments.
Contact a local AIDS support network. Your provider should be able to help you find one.
Ask your healthcare provider:
How and when you will hear your test results
If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to normal activities
How to take care of yourself at home
What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.
How can I help prevent HIV infection?
If you do not have HIV or AIDS, the best way to prevent infection with HIV is to practice safe sex and not use illegal drugs.
Have sex with only 1 person who is not having sex with anyone else.
Avoid exposure to infected body fluids during sex. Use latex or polyurethane condoms every time you have oral, vaginal, or anal sex.
Donâ€™t use a spermicide containing nonoxynol 9 and donâ€™t use condoms coated with this spermicide. This chemical can irritate the lining of the vagina and rectum and make it easier for the virus to enter the body.
If you use a lubricant, use one that is water based. Donâ€™t use oil-based lubricants made with petroleum jelly, mineral oil, vegetable oil, or cold cream. They can damage condoms.
Do not share needles for drug use, tattooing, or body piercing.
Ask any new sexual partner about his or her sexual history, drug use, and tattoos or body piercings.
If you have not been tested for HIV, get tested and ask sexual partners to be tested for HIV.
If you have been exposed to HIV, there are medicines that may be used to prevent infection. The treatment must be started as soon as possible and no more than 72 hours after the exposure. This preventive treatment is not recommended for people who are often at risk of exposure to HIV, such as people who have sex with HIV-positive partners. There is a daily medicine that can help prevent HIV infection if you have a very high risk of getting infectedâ€”for example, you are HIV negative but you have a partner who is HIV positive. However, the medicine may cause serious side effects and may be costly. It must be used with the usual safe sex recommendations.
If you do have HIV or AIDS, you can prevent spreading HIV to others if you:
Practice safe sex. Tell your partner that you have HIV or AIDS.
Donâ€™t donate blood, plasma, or semen.
Donâ€™t donate organs from your body.
Tell all of your healthcare providers that you are HIV positive and what medicines you take. Discuss any concerns you may have about confidentiality with your healthcare provider.
Women who are HIV positive should talk to their healthcare provider before getting pregnant.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth. Last modified: 2014-06-02 Last reviewed: 2014-06-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Aidsmap News. IAS: Regular viral load testing essential for patients in resource limited settings on NNRTIs, says US resistance expert. Michael Carter, reporter, July 24, 2007, reporting from International AIDS Society conference in Sydney, Australia, from presentation by Dr. Steve Deeks: Deeks S. When to switch? First line failure and its implications. Fourth International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention, abstract TUBS103, Sydney, 2007, accessed December 30, 2008, from http://www.aidsmap.org/en/news/941DFFC9-EBD4-49DA-AD9C-3140BA3B188D.asp.