What is HIV?

HIV is a sexually transmitted infection (STD) that you can acquire through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. The body fluids through which you can get HIV are blood, semen, pre-ejaculate, vaginal and rectal fluids, and breast milk of infected individuals. Most commonly, people acquire HIV through sexual activity. However, others get it through sharing needles, razors, or syringes when using injectable drugs. Data from 2018 suggest that an estimated 37.9 million people have HIV globally, 1.7 million of which were children less than15 years old. But is the infection deadly?

The three stages of HIV

Stage one

The evolution of HIV has three phases. It begins with an acute infection that takes place one to four weeks after the initial contact with the virus. The disease manifests itself with flu-like symptoms that may last for about one week. Fever, headache, an HIV rash, or a sore throat may accompany the symptoms. Others present with swollen lymph nodes or pain the joints, muscles, or bones. Some people may not experience any signs at all. During this stage, our body perceives the virus as an invader and activates our immune system to fight the infection. The viral load is very high at this point, and the transmission of the disease is very likely. 

Stage two

Stage two of HIV infection represents a long and asymptomatic period during which the virus is dormant, or at least it seems like it does. However, it continues destroying our immune system slowly but progressively. This phase might last for up to fifteen years, and the individual can still transmit the infection to others. Without routine tests, the infected person is unable to know that he or she is HIV-positive, spreading the disease to other people and not receiving any antiretroviral treatment. During this stage, the virus keeps replicating, infecting, and killing more and more cells. 

Stage three

Stage three of HIV infection equals to the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), during which the individual presents with typical HIV symptoms. Opportunistic infections are very prevalent at this phase and caused by bacteria that usually wouldn't harm healthy individuals. Opportunistic infections are sometimes the ones responsible for an HIV-positive person's death. Symptoms and signs of stage-three HIV infection are some of the following:

  • Weight loss and night sweats
  • Chronic diarrhea and fever
  • Persistent cough 
  • Sores in the mouth or skin rashes
  • Serious opportunistic infections 

These symptoms are typical of AIDS, which is a complication of HIV infection and expresses the incapability of a person to fight infections or even provide a balance between our natural microbial flora. AIDS may be life-threatening, but if you get out of it early enough with medication, you might manage to control HIV again. 

What happens in the body of a person with HIV?

HIV progressively destroys our immune cells, which are responsible for fighting other viruses, bacteria, or pathogens that our body perceives as invaders. HIV starts this process the moment it enters our body. Initially, it starts replicating, and seroconversion takes place. Following this stage, a latent phase manifests, during which there are no symptoms, but the virus keeps replicating. It continues infecting and destroying more and more immune cells. After the dormant stage, HIV becomes apparent again and expresses itself with AIDS. During this stage, immunodeficiency is quite prevalent. The infected individual suffers from opportunistic infections and other constitutional symptoms. The reason why an individual reaches this phase is severe damage to the immune system. 

Can HIV kill you?

Yes, it can. Underdiagnosed HIV may slowly but persistently progress into AIDS. Back in the eighties and before antiretroviral treatment, millions of people died from HIV. Today people still die, although they can diagnose HIV alone at home with an STD rapid kit test. Diagnosing and treating HIV might decrease the risk of death significantly if done early. Most people receiving medication can live an average and healthy life, finally dying from non-HIV related causes. The key to manage HIV efficiently is to diagnose it before it progresses to AIDS. Immediate treatment with antiretroviral medication is mandatory because of the virus's rapid replication capacity. Keep in mind that HIV might also kill the people you love and with whom you come in sexual contact. 

How important is it to diagnose HIV early?

Data from 2015 suggests that half of the 40,000 Americans infected with HIV presented with a diagnosis for at least three years after their primary infection. Similarly, a quarter of this population received a diagnosis seven years or more after their initial infection. Sadly, 20% already had AIDS at the time of their diagnosis. This information suggests that these people were not only unaware of their condition, but they also probably kept spreading the disease to other people. Getting regular screenings for HIV helps to control the disease from spreading, and treating it early enough with antiretroviral treatment. 

How to protect yourself from HIV

Anyone can get infected with HIV. Learning how to protect yourself a little bit more than you did in the past is crucial in preventing it. Get tested before having sex with a new partner and propose to him or her to get tested too. Also, adopt a less risky sex life by choosing to be monogamous. You can also put protection as a personal rule before engaging in sexual activities. You can do that using a condom or dental dam. In general, try to have fewer partners, if not the only one. Keep in mind that various untreated STDs can increase your risk of contracting HIV. Find out if you have any and get treatment.

 In case you came in contact with an HIV-positive individual, get tested and consult your doctor about post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) of HIV. Finally, if you are a drug user, avoid sharing needles with others and get some help to fight your addiction. For those that got exposed to HIV and want to prevent the infection, there is pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PEP is an emergency intervention, and you must initiate it within 72 hours after the potential contact with the virus. 

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Definition of acute HIV infection