HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the virus that causes AIDS. HIV can only infect human beings. It attacks and weakens the immune system by destroying the T-helper white blood cells, the cells in your body that fight off other diseases and infections.
There is no vaccine to prevent HIV or a cure for those who are already infected. But there are medications that help many people with HIV to live long, healthy lives. For someone who is HIV positive, it is important to know as soon as possible so you can work with your doctor to determine the best treatment for you.
AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is the condition caused by HIV. AIDS is only acquired or contracted through infection. It results from the destruction of the infected person’s immune system. It is the most advanced stage of HIV infection and may include a wide range of specific illnesses, called opportunistic infections.
The average time between HIV infection and signs that could lead to an AIDS diagnosis is 8-11 years. This time varies greatly among individuals and can depend on many factors including a person’s health status and behaviors.
The key to slowing the progression of HIV to AIDS is early testing, care and treatment. Certain medical treatments can slow down the rate at which HIV weakens the immune system or prevent or cure some of the illnesses associated with AIDS. As with other diseases, early detection offers more options for treatment and preventative health care.
Primary HIV infection is the first stage of HIV disease, when the virus first establishes itself in the body. Acute HIV infection is the period of time between when a person is first infected with HIV and when antibodies against the virus are produced by the body (usually 6-12 weeks).
Some people newly infected with HIV will experience some “flu-like” symptoms. These symptoms, which usually last no more than a few days, might include fevers, chills, night sweats and rashes. Other people do not experience acute infection or have symptoms so mild that they may not notice them.
There are no common symptoms for people diagnosed with AIDS. When immune system damage is more severe, some people may experience opportunistic infections. Most of these more severe infections, diseases and symptoms fall under the CDC definition of full-blown AIDS.
The only way to determine whether you are infected with HIV is to be tested. You cannot rely on symptoms to know whether or not you have HIV infection. Many people who are infected with HIV may not show symptoms for five to ten years. People who look completely healthy can still have HIV.
You cannot rely on symptoms to establish you have AIDS. The symptoms associated with AIDS are similar to the symptoms of many other diseases. AIDS is a diagnosis made by a doctor based on specific criteria established by the CDC.
The two ways that doctors decide when a person infected with HIV is considered to have advanced to AIDS are:
From other infections: When a person’s immune system is so weakened by HIV that one or more opportunistic infections take hold. These illnesses do not generally affect a person with a healthy immune system.
From certain blood tests (CD4 counts): When the number of healthy immune system cells in an HIV-positive person’s body drops to a certain low point or when the amount of HIV in his/her blood reaches a certain high point (called the “viral load”).
People with other STDs (such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes or syphilis) are at greater risk of getting HIV if they have unprotected sex with someone who is HIV positive. In addition, if someone with HIV is also infected with another STD, he or she is more likely to transmit the virus through sexual contact.
Having an STD can increase a person’s risk of becoming infected with HIV, whether or not that STD causes lesions or breaks in the skin. If the STD infection causes irritation of the skin, breaks or sores, it may make it easier for HIV to enter the body during sexual contact. Even an STD that causes no breaks or sores can stimulate an immune response in the genital area that can make HIV transmission more likely.
The only way to know if you have an STD, including HIV, is to get tested. Many STDs are curable and all are treatable. Getting treated for an STD can help prevent more serious health effects and reduce your risk of contracting HIV if you are exposed.