HIV AIDS human immunodeficiency virus is a virus that damages the cells in your immune system and weakens your ability to fight everyday infections and disease. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the name used to describe a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that happen when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus.
While AIDS cannot be transmitted from 1 person to another, the HIV virus can. There’s currently no cure for HIV, but there are very effective drug treatments that enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life. With an early diagnosis and effective treatments, most people with HIV will not develop any AIDS-related illnesses and will live a near-normal lifespan.
What is HIV?
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It harms your immune system by destroying a type of white blood cell that helps your body fight infection. This puts you at risk for serious infections and certain cancers.
What is AIDS?
AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. It is the final stage of infection with HIV. It happens when the body’s immune system is badly damaged because of the virus. Not everyone with HIV develops AIDS.
HIV can be transmitted via the exchange of a variety of body fluids from infected people, such as blood, breast milk, semen and vaginal secretions. HIV can also be transmitted from a mother to her child during pregnancy and delivery. Individuals cannot become infected through ordinary day-to-day contact such as kissing, hugging, shaking hands, or sharing personal objects, food or water.
It is important to note that people with HIV who are taking ART and are virally suppressed do not transmit HIV to their sexual partners. Early access to ART and support to remain on treatment is therefore critical not only to improve the health of people with HIV but also to prevent HIV transmission.
The symptoms of HIV and AIDS vary, depending on the phase of infection.
Primary infection (Acute HIV)
Some people infected by HIV develop a flu-like illness within 2 to 4 weeks after the virus enters the body. This illness, known as primary (acute) HIV infection, may last for a few weeks.
Possible signs and symptoms include:
Muscle aches and joint pain
Sore throat and painful mouth sores
Swollen lymph glands, mainly on the neck
These symptoms can be so mild that you might not even notice them. However, the amount of virus in your bloodstream (viral load) is quite high at this time. As a result, the infection spreads more easily during primary infection than during the next stage.
Progression to AIDS
Access to better antiviral treatments has dramatically decreased deaths from AIDS worldwide, even in resource-poor countries. Thanks to these life-saving treatments, most people with HIV in the U.S. today don’t develop AIDS. Untreated, HIV typically turns into AIDS in about 8 to 10 years.
When AIDS occurs, your immune system has been severely damaged. You’ll be more likely to develop diseases that wouldn’t usually cause illness in a person with a healthy immune system. These are called opportunistic infections or opportunistic cancers.
The signs and symptoms of some of these infections may include:
Swollen lymph glands
Persistent white spots or unusual lesions on your tongue or in your mouth
Persistent, unexplained fatigue
Skin rashes or bumps
How HIV doesn’t spread
You can’t become infected with HIV through ordinary contact. That means you can’t catch HIV or AIDS by hugging, kissing, dancing or shaking hands with someone who has the infection.
Anyone of any age, race, sex or sexual orientation can be infected with HIV/AIDS. However, you’re at greatest risk of HIV/AIDS if you: Have unprotected sex. Use a new latex or polyurethane condom every time you have sex. Anal sex is riskier than is vaginal sex. Your risk of HIV increases if you have multiple sexual partners. Have an STI. Many STIs produce open sores on your genitals. These sores act as doorways for HIV to enter your body.
Use illicit injection drugs. People who use illicit injection drugs often share needles and syringes. This exposes them to droplets of other people’s blood.
Cancers common to HIV/AIDS
- Lymphoma this cancer starts in the white blood cells. The most common early sign is painless swelling of the lymph nodes in your neck, armpit or groin.
- Kaposi’s sarcoma. A tumor of the blood vessel walls, Kaposi’s sarcoma usually appears as pink, red or purple lesions on the skin and mouth. In people with darker skin, the lesions may look dark brown or black. Kaposi’s sarcoma can also affect the internal organs, including the digestive tract and lungs.
- HPV-related cancers. These are cancers caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. They include anal, oral and cervical cancer.
Treatment for HIV
Antiretroviral medicines are used to treat HIV. They work by stopping the virus replicating in the body, allowing the immune system to repair itself and preventing further damage.
These come in the form of tablets, which need to be taken every day.
HIV is able to develop resistance to a single HIV medicine very easily, but taking a combination of different medicines makes this much less likely.
Most people with HIV take a combination of medicines. It’s vital these are taken every day as recommended by your doctor.
The goal of HIV treatment is to have an undetectable viral load. This means the level of HIV virus in your body is low enough to not be detected by a test.
Anyone who has sex without a condom or shares needles is at risk of HIV infection.
There are many effective ways to prevent or reduce the risk of HIV infection, including:
using a condom for sex
post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP)
pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)
treatment for HIV to reduce the viral load to undetectable
if you use drugs, never sharing needles or other injecting equipment, including syringes, spoons and swabs
Speak to your local sexual health clinic or a GP for further advice about the best way to reduce your risk.
For people with HIV, if you have been taking effective HIV treatment and your viral load has been undetectable for 6 months or more, it means you cannot pass the virus on through sex