The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) impacts certain cells in the immune system and — if the virus is left untreated — makes people more susceptible to illness and infection. Learn more about HIV, including what symptoms it produces and how it’s transmitted, so you can better protect yourself from infection.
How common is HIV?
The number of HIV/AIDS-related deaths climbed rapidly through the 1980s and early 1990s. When antiretroviral therapy became widely available in the mid-’90s, HIV (which had been considered a death sentence) became a manageable chronic condition. So you may be surprised to learn how prevalent HIV still is today.
In 2017, more than 38,000 people received new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. According to the CDC, there are about 1.1 million people living with HIV in the United States as of the end of 2015. Of those, an estimated 15% (about 162,500 people) are not yet diagnosed, meaning they don’t know they’ve been infected with the virus — which is a big problem. Once diagnosed, people with HIV can start taking life-saving medicine that protects their health and lowers their chances of transmitting the virus to others. But when people don’t know they have HIV they are likely to infect their partners.
Early HIV Symptoms
Shortly after infection occurs, there’s a very brief period of symptoms. Other symptoms don’t develop until you’ve had the virus for quite some time, so many people go for months or years without realizing they have HIV.
About two to four weeks after contracting the virus, the following symptoms may develop as the body reacts to the HIV infection:
- Sore joints or muscles
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph glands
These symptoms are known as primary HIV infection or acute retroviral syndrome. Because the symptoms only last for a few weeks, they are often confused for the flu or another type of minor illness. Unfortunately, there is also a high level of the virus in the body during this period, making it easier for the newly infect person to spread HIV to others.
Later HIV Symptoms
Most people with HIV don’t develop noticeable symptoms again until at least several years after the initial infection. The period after primary HIV infection before the onset of more serious symptoms is called the clinical latency stage or chronic HIV infection. During this time, HIV is still active in the body but it reproduces at very low levels and only produces mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. It’s important to remember that HIV can still be transmitted even when the infected individual has no symptoms.
Without antiretroviral treatment, the virus will weaken the body’s immune system over time to the point that the disease progresses to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). This advanced stage of HIV infection can produce these symptoms:
- Frequently contracting infections
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing spells
- Bruising easily
- Sore throat
- Rapid weight loss
- Extreme and unexplained fatigue or dizziness
- Recurring fever
- Night sweats
- Chronic pelvic inflammatory disease
- Sores of the mouth, anus, or genitals
- Red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on the skin
- Prolonged swelling of the lymph glands
- Chronic diarrhea
- Memory loss, depression, and other neurologic disorders
AIDS is not reversible, but antiretroviral treatments can help to prolong life in those with the disease.
HIV is spread through bodily fluids from a person who has the disease. Only the following bodily fluids can transmit HIV:
- Pre-seminal fluid
- Rectal fluids
- Vaginal fluids
- Breast milk
In order for transmission to occur, one of these fluids from an infected person must come into contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue, or be directly injected into the bloodstream.
HIV is mainly spread by having unprotected anal or vaginal sex or sharing needles for injecting drugs. In some cases, it is spread from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. In healthcare professions, workers must be careful to avoid needle sticks involving HIV-contaminated needles.
There are a number of ways to help prevent HIV infection, including:
- Regular condom use
- Reducing your number of sexual partners
- Never sharing needles
- The daily HIV prevention medication PrEP
People who are not HIV-positive can take PrEP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis) in order to reduce their risk of infection. PrEP is a pill you take once a day (like the birth control pill or combination pill) that is up to 99% effective at preventing HIV infection. Currently, the only FDA-approved and available PrEP medication is Truvada. If you’re eligible for PrEP, companies like Nurx™ can mail your medication straight to your door in a discreet package.
Thanks to medical advances, many people live for years with no serious side effects from HIV. Use the HIV prevention tips in this article and get tested regularly to protect yourself and your partners.
This blog provides information about telemedicine, health and related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes. The views expressed herein are not sponsored by and do not represent the opinions of Nurx™.