What is HIV?
HIV stands for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This is a virus that people can become infected with and pass on to other people. When someone becomes infected with HIV it begins to attack his or her immune system which is the body’s defense against illness. A person can be HIV positive for many years before developing AIDS. In fact, approximately 5% of people with HIV do not develop AIDS. They are called long-term non-progressors.
What is AIDS?
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. A person is said to have AIDS when they develop one of several opportunistic infections or he or she has a CD4 lymphocyte count of less than 200. Common viruses, bacteria, protozoa or fungi that a normal immune system combats easily cause these infections. In a weakened immune system, these organisms can cause severe, life-threatening illnesses.
How exactly is HIV spread?
AIDS does not discriminate. Anyone of any sexual orientation, any gender, any age and any ethnic background may become infected. The HIV virus is present in the sexual fluids and blood of infected people. It can also be in the breast milk of infected women. Contact with any of these fluids can expose you to the HIV virus. There is no evidence of HIV transmission through casual contact with an infected person.
HIV is spread through unprotected/unsafe (without condoms) vaginal, oral or anal sexual intercourse. Transmission is possible from male to male, male to female, female to male and female to female. Another way the virus is spread is through the sharing of injection drug equipment.
Mothers can also transmit HIV prior to birth, during birth or through breast milk. If a woman finds out she is HIV positive during pregnancy, she runs a 25% chance that her baby will be born infected. However, with the use of AZT and/or protease inhibitors during pregnancy, the risk of infecting her baby drops to 8% or less.
HIV can be spread through infected blood or blood products. All blood donated in the United States is tested for HIV, however a small risk remains due to the “window period” which is when a person is infected, but has a negative HIV test because they haven’t yet developed HIV antibodies that show up on a test.
Healthcare workers can also become infected with HIV through a deep needle stick or surgical injuries received while working with HIV infected patients.
Studies conducted with families of people with AIDS confirm that hugging, touching, social kissing, sharing kitchen utensils and bathroom facilities, or even sleeping together in the same bed as long as there is no exchange of the aforementioned bodily fluids, are all safe activities.
What is “risky activity?”
A risky activity is anything that makes it possible for the virus to pass from one person to another. Sexual intercourse without a condom is risky because the virus, which is present in an infected person’s sexual fluids, can pass directly into the body of their partner.
Contact with an infected person’s blood is risky if it allows the virus to pass into another person’s body through cuts or grazes in their skin. This includes being pricked by, or injected with a needle or syringe already used by someone else.
Where can I get an HIV test in Austin?
Check out our testing page.
How quickly after possible HIV exposure should I get tested?
Infection with HIV has no specific symptoms. The only way you can find out for sure if you are infected with HIV is by taking the HIV antibody test.
The HIV antibody test looks for antibodies to the virus in a person’s blood. It takes two weeks to 6 months to produce HIV antibodies after infection. This period of time is known as the “window period”. There have been a few rare cases of people going longer than 6 months, some up to a year after infection to develop detectable antibodies. However, 95% of the people infected develop antibodies within the first 6-8 weeks and the majority of the remainder does so by 6 months.
Getting tested before the first 6-8 weeks is up may result in an unclear test result, as an infected person may not have developed antibodies to HIV yet. So it is best to wait for at least three months after the last time you were at risk before taking the test. Some test centers may recommend testing again at 6 months, just to be extra sure.
It is also important that you are not at risk for further exposure to HIV during this time period. Most importantly you should continue to practice safe sex and not share needles.
What if I test positive for HIV?
Although HIV can’t be cured with current medical options, it can be managed. This means the virus can be kept from rapidly growing in the body so that it doesn’t damage the immune system quickly. The first step you should take is to see a doctor, even if you do not feel sick. Try to find a doctor who has experience treating HIV. There are now many drugs to treat HIV infection and help you maintain your health. These drugs are called anti-retrovirals and protease inhibitors. A combination of these drugs is referred to as a drug cocktail. Many people also get an antibiotic, which will prevent pneumonia.
You should also try to stop smoking cigarettes, drinking too much alcohol and using illegal drugs (such as cocaine). All of these can weaken your immune system.
What are the complications of untreated HIV infections?
When the virus has done a lot of damage to the immune system, the end result is AIDS. This is when the immune system is so worn down it isn’t able to fight off common diseases and disorders. The T cell count will drop to below 200, the viral load will increase to over 50,000, and the person will start developing illnesses that are very hard to get rid of. They may get pneumonia, thrush (yeast infections of the mouth, throat, skin or vagina) or a severe flu. They may lose a lot of weight and become extremely tired. They may develop a persistent cough and shortness of breath. Stomach pain and severe diarrhea is also common for a person with AIDS. Old, untreated infections such as TB (tuberculosis), syphilis or herpes can take advantage of a weakened immune system and spread throughout the body, leading to severe illness and death.
What are the first symptoms of HIV infection?
The only way to know for sure whether you are infected with HIV is to have an HIV antibody test. The symptoms of initial HIV infection are not very specific. If a person is infected, a few weeks after infection some people experience flu-like illness. They may have a sore throat, swollen glands, medium to high-grade fever, rashes, and feel tired. Only one in five people experience symptoms serious enough to require a doctor’s attention. They will usually recover from this and not know that they are HIV-positive.
Several years after infection a person may experience symptoms of particular illnesses and cancers. These are the result of the infected person’s immune system being damaged by HIV to the point where it is no longer able to fight off these opportunistic infections.
If you have further questions and want to speak to a specialist, call us at 512-458-2437.