Understanding AIDS & HIV

Fact-Checked By : Dr. Tara Scott, OB-GYN

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December 1st is World AIDS Day. The tradition of World AIDS Day was started in 1988 and has occurred every year since. It’s a day to remember those who have lost their lives due to the AIDS epidemic and a time to spread awareness about this disease.

This year for World AIDS Day, the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) is focusing on “addressing stigma, discrimination, and defending human rights—to [increase] access to life-saving services and [ensure] that people are at the center of policy-making and implementation” as it pertains to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.In an effort to raise more awareness, we’ve put together information to help

demystify AIDS/HIV. Whether you’re a part of an at-risk community or are simply looking for more information, so you can be supportive of others, here’s an easy guide to understanding HIV/AIDS.

What is HIV/AIDS?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This virus can target your immune system, making it difficult for you to fight off simple infections and diseases. If HIV damages your immune system, it will cause Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, which is often shortened to AIDS. According to the Mayo Clinic, “AIDS is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).”

What’s the difference between HIV and AIDS?

Simply put, the difference between HIV and AIDS is that HIV is the virus that can be transmitted from person to person. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus can cause AIDS if it starts to attack a person’s immune system.

Planned Parenthood explains that “over time, HIV destroys an important kind of...cell in your immune system (called CD4 cells or T cells) that helps protect you from infections. When you don’t have enough of these CD4 cells, your body can’t fight off infections the way it normally can.” It’s important to note that people who are carriers of HIV don’t automatically have AIDS.

How do people contract HIV?

HIV is a sexually transmitted infection, also known as an STI, so one way it can be spread is through unprotected sexual intercourse. It can also be passed along by blood that’s infected with the virus—for example, if you inject yourself with a used needle, you could contract HIV if the previous person had HIV.

A mother can pass HIV to her child during pregnancy, childbirth, or while breastfeeding. As a result, children can be born with HIV or contract the virus at a very young age. Therefore, if you’re an expectant mother who may have been exposed to HIV, it’s very important to get tested.

What populations are the most at risk of contracting HIV?

Due to the stigma surrounding HIV, you may think you’re not at risk for contracting HIV; however, anyone can contract HIV. That being said, there are certain populations who are statistically at higher risk. According to the CDC, these populations include:

  • Gay/Bi-Sexual Men, no matter race or ethnicity
  • African Americans
  • Latinos
  • Injection Drug Users
  • Transgender Individuals

Some of these populations are more likely to be exposed due to higher-risk behaviors, such as anal or vaginal sex or exposure to infected blood through used needles.

Other populations are at higher risk because they have less access to the tools that lower risk factors—like condoms and medicinal treatment—as well as a lack of access to information regarding HIV due to disproportionate poverty.

What are symptoms to look for?

Particularly if you’re part of a higher risk population, you should be monitoring yourself for symptoms, so you’re able to seek immediate medical treatment. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are a few stages of symptoms to look for if you’ve contracted HIV.

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Within two to four weeks of being infected with HIV, you may feel like you have the flu. It’s important to get tested during this time because your risk of transmission to others is very high during this period due to a high viral load. If you’re part of a high-risk population and experience the following, you should go get tested:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches/joint pain
  • Rash
  • Sore throat/mouth sores
  • Swollen lymph glands, primarily on the neck
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Cough
  • Night sweats

As the infection progresses, you may experience all of the above as well as oral yeast infection (thrush), shingles (herpes zoster), and pneumonia.

What can you do to prevent contracting HIV?

Since HIV is a sexually transmitted disease, that means that abstinence is one way to prevent the contraction of HIV. Honestly, though, that’s not a very realistic look at the HIV epidemic.

Practicing safer sex by using condoms every time you have intercourse is effective when it comes to prevention

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You can also take PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis if you’re part of a high-risk population, which drastically diminishes your chances of contracting HIV. If you’re at risk due to drug use, make sure you’re never using already used needles.

What are some of the medical advancements that have been made in the past few years?

Over the last thirty years, the AIDS epidemic has changed dramatically due to new advancements in the prevention and treatment of HIV. Although this epidemic is far from over, especially in impoverished communities, there’s a lot of hope due to advancements such as PEP and PrEP.

PEP stands for post-exposure prophylaxis and is a medication that should be taken as soon as possible after a possible HIV exposure. It should be taken no later than 72 hours after exposure to be effective, but the earlier it’s taken, the better. It should only be used in emergency situations, like if a condom broke, if you’ve shared a needle, or if you were sexually assaulted. Don’t put off taking PEP due to financial restraints. In many cases, you can qualify for free PEP or quick compensation afterward.

PrEP, as mentioned above, is free for qualifying individuals! It’s an antiviral drug that’s taken every day at the same time, or as prescribed by your doctor. It has no known side effects with birth control or hormone therapy. When taken correctly, it’s more than 90 percent effective when it comes to preventing the contraction of HIV.

If you test positive for HIV, there’s medication to keep the viral load to a minimum and reduce the risk of transmission to others. HIV medication is called antiretroviral therapy. There isn’t a cure for HIV yet, but through this type of therapy, you can keep the virus under control, and prevent it from developing into AIDS.

How can you get an HIV test?

Getting tested for HIV is easier than you think. You can get tested for free at some places. It may take three months after being exposed for your viral load to be great enough that you test positive. You may get false negatives before three months. Talk to a doctor about what the proper testing procedure should be according to when you believe you may have been exposed.

Bunches Of Gut Health With Bananas

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Planned Parenthood can offer you free testing for HIV as well as some local health departments, and college/university health centers if you’re a student. Call ahead to see if you’re able to get free testing. If you have health insurance, your insurance may cover testing at your doctor’s office. You’re able to be confidentially or anonymously tested depending on your preference. Getting tested is important because it allows you to take action as soon as possible if your test comes back positive.

Share the information you learned here about HIV/AIDS with your family and friends. Open and factual conversations help to destigmatize this epidemic.


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