HIV/AIDS is the most frightening and stigmatized STD (sexually transmitted disease) in our world today. The simple idea of having it can cause incredible fear and anxiety, due to many of the stories that people have heard about it, especially those from the 1980s and 1990s. While HIV/AIDS symptoms can be quite serious, there are much better treatments today than in previous decades.
Learn more about HIV/AIDS symptoms and what can be done to treat them.
What is HIV/AIDS?
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a serious sexually transmitted infection. It is an STD that causes damage to specific cells necessary for a healthy immune system. These cells are known as CD4 cells or T cells. By reducing your number of T cells present in body, your immune system is weakened, making it difficult for your body to fend off illness. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the final stages of this process, when you have developed rare infections or your T cell count has become very low.
While HIV is incredibly serious, it takes time to deplete your immune system. Without treatment, it takes the average person 10 years to develop AIDS. While getting tested for HIV/AIDS can be anxiety-provoking, it is much better to know your HIV status. With a combination of treatment and lifestyle changes, you and your doctor can work to slow the damage of HIV, giving you a long and happy life.
How is HIV/AIDS Prevented?
HIV is a blood-borne disease, meaning that it is contracted through blood and other bodily fluids. These include semen (cum), vaginal fluids, as well as breast milk. You can also contract the virus through cuts, tears, or sores, as well as mucous membranes (like those inside the vagina, penis, and rectum).
HIV is commonly transmitted through sexual activity, whether it’s vaginal, oral, or anal. With this in mind, using safe sex practices (such as condoms and dental dams) are key to preventing HIV infections. You may also consider reducing the number of partners you have sex with a a way of reducing your chances of catching HIV. Because your partner may show no HIV symptoms, and may not even know they have HIV, it’s critical to have safe sex. You and your partner can also stay healthy through regular STD/HIV testing and openly and responsibly sharing your status with one another.
Because HIV can enter through cuts or other wounds, you should also be careful about sharing needles. This is not limited to intravenous drug use, as some may assume. You can also contract HIV through shared instruments for tattoos and piercings.
You cannot get HIV through saliva, meaning that it is perfectly safe to kiss and share food with someone who has HIV. You cannot get HIV from hugging, holding hands, sneezing, coughing, or by sitting on a toilet seat. While some people have heard stories about getting HIV through blood transfusions, these stories were from long ago; hospitals have since learned and now take careful precautions with regards to blood and needle usage, making blood transfusions perfectly safe.
What Do HIV/AIDS Symptoms Look Like?
People with the virus do not commonly display HIV symptoms right away. Without treatment, it can take as long as 10 years for HIV symptoms to manifest. That is why it is so important to receive regular STD/HIV tests: it can take a long time before you begin to show any signs of HIV, and the sooner you catch the virus, the better chance you have at slowing the damage to your body. HIV treatment can help you to stay healthy much longer, but to get treated, you need to know you have HIV.
During the first month of contracting HIV, you may develop flu-like symptoms. These symptoms are your body’s early responses to the virus. During these early stages of HIV, there will be a lot of the virus in your system, making you incredibly contagious. If you feel that you are showing any early HIV symptoms, you may want to refrain from sharing needles or having sex until you can get tested by a doctor.
Most Common HIV Symptoms:
- Body rash
- Sore throat
- Severe headaches
Less Common HIV Symptoms:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Ulcers in the mouth
- Vaginal infections
- Night sweats
- Muscle aches and joint pain
Remember: Whether or not symptoms are present, you can still pass the virus to other people. Take all necessary precautions, regardless of how healthy you feel.
As HIV begins to destroy the T cells in your body, you may begin to develop more serious conditions, such as cancers or rare infections. These are likely the symptoms of AIDS. Other AIDS symptoms might include the following:
- Persistent diarrhea
- Skin rashes
- Rapid weight loss
- Recurring fever
- Recurring chills
- Recurring night sweats
- Shortness of breath
- Sores or ulcers in the mouth
- Vaginal infections
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Persistent or prolonged swelling of the lymph nodes
- Memory loss, confusion or neurological disorders
- Lack of muscle control, along with an intense numbness in hands and feet.
If you begin to develop any of these symptoms, see a physician as soon as possible.
What Can I Expect When I Get Tested?
If you believe you have been exposed to HIV within the last 72 hours, seek immediate medical treatment at the nearest emergency room.
If you are concerned about exposure to HIV, or have developed HIV symptoms, you can be tested in as soon as 10 days. Using the HIV early detection test, a simple blood test that checks your body’s RNA, you can receive results that are 99% accurate. While it can be anxiety inducing to wait up to 10 days before getting testing, it is crucial to wait the appropriate amount of time for the sake of accurate results.
While you can get tested as soon as 10 days after exposure using RNA testing methods, it is possible to have a false negative. Because of this small possibility, it is recommended that anyone who displays HIV symptoms, or believes that they may have been exposed to HIV, should get re-tested after two months using the 4th generation test. It can take that long for HIV antibodies to present themselves in your blood system, so it is better to wait to be safe.
How is HIV/AIDS Treated?
While there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, there are treatments that can help prevent or reduce your HIV symptoms. One of these treatments is an antiretroviral treatment (ART), a combination of medicines that can reduce the amount of HIV that is in your system. Reducing the strength of the virus can help slow its damage, both easing your HIV symptoms while also lowering your risk of transmitting the virus to someone else.
With ART, many people are able to live completely healthy lives. In fact, ART does such a good job of suppressing the HIV virus that it will even become invisible to blood tests. Of course, this does not mean that you are not contagious or cured, simply that the drugs are effective and working.
Along with taking medication, those with HIV can also make lifestyle changes that will lead to a better, healthier life. Such lifestyle changes might include eating right, exercising and getting plenty of sleep while avoiding things like stress, smoking, drugs, or alcohol.
The Psychological Effects of HIV/AIDS
Discovering that you may have HIV symptoms can be deeply distressing. After having your diagnosis confirmed through testing, you may wish to see a mental health professional to help alleviate the psychological stress of this potentially life-threatening illness. While many people adapt to living with HIV, living healthy lives with treatment, having a mental health professional can be a welcome addition to your health care support team.
There are also support groups for those with HIV/AIDS. Many find this sense of community to be helpful, having other people who can empathize and understand what you are experiencing: the fears, the successes, and the challenges associated with HIV symptoms.
Relationships with HIV/AIDS
One of the most difficult parts of knowing you have HIV is telling other people. While your HIV/AIDS status is protected by law, it can be better to tell close friends, family, and significant others. While you are going through a difficult period, it is better to not go through it by yourself.
Of course, it’s hard to talk to someone about your HIV symptoms or status when you may also be telling them that they, too, could have HIV. You may be scared of how they will react. The best thing you can do is prepare yourself for the conversation, empowered by all of the knowledge you may have learned since first communicating with your doctor. Reassure them with the information that you now know, such as treatment options and how people with HIV can still live healthy lives.
Sometimes anger is a reaction to discussing HIV, with either you angry with your partner or your partner angry with you. Try not to blame one another, as it can be difficult to determine where the virus originated and with whom. Because the virus can lie dormant for years, without regular testing, you may never know exactly who had it first, so it is better to support one another.
If your partner does not have HIV symptoms, and this diagnosis is confirmed as negative through repeated testing, you will want to protect your partner through safe sex practices. Condoms, dental dams, not sharing needles, as well as taking your antiretroviral medication are all great ways of reducing the odds of transmission.
Will HIV/AIDS Affect My Pregnancy?
While babies can get infected with HIV during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, you can greatly reduce these risks through antiretroviral treatment. With proper medication, the chances of passing HIV to your baby are 2 out of 100. Without any treatment, the odds go up to 1 in 4. That is why, if you are displaying HIV symptoms, it is so important to get yourself tested and treated as soon as possible.