What Is AIDS? What Is HIV?

AIDS (Acquired immune deficiency syndrome or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is a disease caused by a virus called HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). The illness alters the immune system, making people much more vulnerable to infections and diseases. This susceptibility worsens as the disease progresses.

HIV is found in the body fluids of an infected person (semen and vaginal fluids, blood and breast milk). The virus is passed from one person to another through blood-to-blood and sexual contact. In addition, infected pregnant women can pass HIV to their babies during pregnancy, delivering the baby during childbirth, and through breast feeding.

HIV can be transmitted in many ways, such as vaginal, oral sex, anal sex, blood transfusion, and contaminated hypodermic needles.

Both the virus and the disease are often referred to together as HIV/AIDS. People with HIV have what is called HIV infection. As a result, some will then develop AIDS.  The development of numerous opportunistic infections in an AIDS patient can ultimately lead to death.

According to research, the origins of HIV date back to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century in west-central Africa. AIDS and its cause, HIV, were first identified and recognized in the early 1980s.

There is currently no cure for HIV/AIDS.  Treatments can slow the course of the disease -  some infected people can live a long and relatively healthy life.

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?

HIV is the virus which attacks the T-cells in the immune system.
AIDS is the syndrome which appears in advanced stages of HIV infection.
HIV is a virus.
AIDS is a medical condition.
HIV infection causes AIDS to develop. However, it is possible to be infected with HIV without developing AIDS. Without treatment, the HIV infection is allowed to progress and eventually it will develop into AIDS in the vast majority of cases.
HIV testing can identify infection in the early stages. This allows the patient to use prophylactic (preventive) drugs which will slow the rate at which the virus replicates, delaying the onset of AIDS.
AIDS patients still have the HIV virus and are still infectious.  Someone with AIDS can pass HIV to someone else

What are the signs and symptoms of HIV/AIDS?

What is the difference between a sign and a symptom? A sign is something other people, apart from the patient can detect, such as a swelling, rash, or change in skin color. A symptom is something only the patient feels and describes, such as a headache, fatigue, or dizziness.

For the most part, the symptoms of HIV are the result of infections caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. These conditions do not normally develop in individuals with healthy immune systems, which protect the body against infection.
Signs and symptoms of early HIV infection
Many people with HIV have no symptoms for several years. Others may develop symptoms similar to flu, usually two to six weeks after catching the virus. The symptoms can last up to four weeks.
Symptoms of early HIV infection may include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • joint pain
  • muscle ache
  • sore throat
  • sweats (particularly at night)
  • enlarged glands
  • a red rash
  • tiredness
  • weakness
  • weight loss

Asymptomatic HIV infection
In many cases, after the initial symptoms disappear, there will not be any further symptoms for many years. During this time, the virus carries on developing and damages the immune system. This process can take up to 10 years. The infected person will experience no symptoms, feel well and appear healthy.
Late-stage HIV infection
If left untreated, HIV weakens the ability to fight infection. The person becomes vulnerable to serious illnesses. This stage of infection is known as AIDS.
Signs and symptoms of late-stage HIV infection may include:

  • blurred vision
  • diarrhea,  which is usually persistent or chronic
  • dry cough
  • fever of above 37C (100F) lasting for weeks
  • night sweats
  • permanent tiredness
  • shortness of breath
  • swollen glands lasting for weeks
  • weight loss
  • white spots on the tongue or mouth

During late-stage HIV infection, the risk of developing a life-threatening illness is much greater. Examples include:

  • esophagitis(an inflammation of the lining of the lower end of the esophagus)
  • infections to the nervous system (acute aseptic meningitis, subacute encephalitis, peripheral neuropathy)
  • pneumonia
  • some cancers, such as Kaposi’s sarcoma, invasive cervical cancer, lung cancer, rectal carcinomas, hepatocellular carcinomas, head and neck cancers, cancers of the immune system known as lymphomas
  • toxoplasmosis (a disease caused by a parasite that infects the brain. It can also cause disease in the eyes and lungs)
  • tuberculosis

Life-threatening illnesses may be controlled and treated with proper HIV treatment.

What causes HIV/AIDS?

HIV is a retrovirus that infects the vital organs of the human immune system. The disease progresses in the absence of antiretroviral therapy.  The rate of disease progression varies widely between individuals and depends on many factors (age of the patient, body’s ability to defend against HIV,  access to health care, existence of coexisting infections, the infected person’s genetic inheritance, resistance to certain strains of HIV).
HIV can be transmitted through:

  • Sexual transmission. It can happen when there is contact with infected sexual secretions (rectal, genital or oral mucous membranes). This can happen while having unprotected sex, including vaginal, oral and anal sex or sharing sex toys with someone infected with HIV.
  • Perinatal transmission. The mother can pass the infection on to her child during childbirth, pregnancy, and also through breastfeeding.
  • Blood transmission. The risk of transmitting HIV through blood transfusion is nowadays extremely low in developed countries, thanks to meticulous screening and precautions. Among drug users, sharing and reusing syringes contaminated with HIV-infected blood is extremely hazardous.
    Thanks to strict protection procedures the risk of accidental infection for healthcare workers is low.
    Individuals who give and receive tattoos and piercings are also at risk and should be very careful.

Myths: There are many misconceptions about HIV and AIDS. The virus CANNOT be transmitted from:

  • shaking hands
  • hugging
  • casual kissing
  • sneezing
  • touching unbroken skin
  • using the same toilet
  • sharing towels
  • sharing cutlery
  • mouth-to-mouth resuscitation
  • or other forms of “casual contact”

How is HIV/AIDS diagnosed?

1 in every 5 HIV-positive Africans is unaware of their HIV-status, and only 49% of those who are aware receive ongoing medical care and treatment.
HIV blood test
Diagnosis is made through a blood test that screens specifically for the virus.
If the HIV virus has been found, the test result is “positive”. The blood is re-tested several times before a positive result is given to the patient.
For those whose tests came back positive, they will be asked to undergo some other tests to see how the infection has progressed, and also to decide when to start treatment.
If a person has been exposed to the virus, it is crucial that they get tested as soon as possible. The earlier HIV is detected, the more likely the treatment will be successful.  Also, precautions can be taken to prevent the virus from spreading to other people.
After infection with HIV, it can take up from three weeks to three months for the virus to show up in testing. Re- testing may be necessary.
If a patient’s most at risk moment of becoming HIV infected was within the last three months, he/she can have the test immediately. However, a good doctor will urge that another test be carried out within a few weeks.

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