What Are HIV & AIDS?
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV causes an infection that, left untreated, leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
HIV damages T cells, which help the immune system fight infections, to the point that the body is unable to fight off disease. AIDS is considered the final stage of HIV and develops when the immune system is severely damaged.
Both HIV and AIDS can be spread by sexual contact as well as through contact with infected blood, by sharing needles used for drugs, or from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
The conditions are defined by stage:
- Acute HIV infection stage — This phase begins 2 to 4 weeks after infection.
- Clinical latency stage — At this point, the virus has begun reproducing in the body but often causes no symptoms.
- AIDS — A diagnosis of AIDS occurs when an individual begins contracting a large number of opportunistic infections, which are severe infections that are more severe or common in people with HIV. A person may also receive an AIDS diagnosis when his or her T-cell count falls too low.
Although people who have reached clinical latency stage of HIV may not experience symptoms, these common symptoms characterize the early stages of the disease:
- Flu-like symptoms — Fever, headache, muscle aches and pains, rash, and swollen glands are common in the first 2 to 4 weeks of infection (acute HIV infection stage). Some people describe the feeling as the worst flu they have ever experienced. A person is extremely contagious at this point as he/she has a large amount of virus in the blood.
By the time HIV has progressed to AIDS, the person who has the disease may develop symptoms of opportunistic infections. Those symptoms include:
- Bruising easily and/or bleeding from the mouth, nose, anus or vagina — Low platelet counts in people with AIDS reduce blood’s ability to clot.
- Sores on the lips, mouth or face — These are characteristic of herpes simplex virus 1.
- Shingles or herpes zoster
- Thrush — This yeast infection occurs in the mouth and leads to a thick, whitish coating on the tongue and inner cheeks.
- Vaginal yeast infections — Women may experience these frequently, and they are often severe.
- Weight loss — This often happens quickly.
- Fevers, rashes, recurrent pneumonias or infections
There is no cure for HIV or AIDS, but many treatments can help patients manage HIV and avoid its progression to AIDS. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is the primary treatment and involves taking a combination of medications from the following 7 drug classes to control the virus’ reproduction in the body. Treatment should begin as soon as the person is diagnosed as medication will prevent further damage to the immune system and other complications.
- Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors and integrase strand transfer inhibitors — These 3 classes of medications prevent the virus from multiplying.
- Protease inhibitors — These medications prevent the HIV virus from maturing and infecting immune cells.
- Fusion inhibitors, CCR5 antagonists and post-attachment inhibitors — These medications work in varying ways to prevent HIV from entering immune cells.
HIV infection can now be prevented with the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis with antiretroviral therapy and other strategies.
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