Since the first outbreak of HIV/AIDS in June 1981, AIDS is estimated to have caused a total of 40.1 million deaths worldwide. We’ve come a long way since the virus first appeared decades. While a cure for AIDS still eludes medical researchers, better treatments along with improved awareness and prevention strategies have drastically reduced the number of AIDS-related deaths in the United States and across the world.
To help continue this campaign for improved AIDS awareness, treatments, and prevention, December 1st has been designated as World AIDS Day. At Bikham Healthcare, we wanted to take the opportunity to promote this important cause by compiling everything you need to know about HIV and AIDS, including what they are, AIDS symptoms and complications, how AIDS is diagnosed and treated, and how you can lower your HIV/AIDS risk.
What is HIV/AIDS?
There is a lot of confusion regarding the difference between HIV and AIDS and what these two terms mean, so covering the definition of each is an important place to start. HIV stands for “human immunodeficiency virus” and is the name of a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. AIDS, meanwhile, stands for “acquired immune deficiency syndrome” and is the name of a condition that HIV infection can lead to if left untreated.
Even without treatment, HIV can often persist for a decade or longer until it progresses into AIDS. Today, HIV treatment is able to slow this progression even further and can often even prevent it entirely, giving those with HIV a much longer lifespan. Without HIV treatment, though, people whose condition has progressed into AIDS typically only survive an average of three years. This is due to the fact that AIDS leaves the body with a severely damaged immune system, eliminating its ability to fight off infections.
How is HIV Spread?
HIV can be spread through contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluids. In most cases, HIV is transmitted sexually. However, HIV is also commonly spread by the practice of sharing needles, syringes, and other drug injection equipment.
A big part of what makes HIV so difficult to combat is the fact that it presents very few symptoms. Many people will experience flu-like symptoms upon first contracting HIV. However, HIV having flu-like symptoms means that these symptoms are most often dismissed as actually being the flu. Once these initial symptoms have passed, HIV doesn’t typically present any symptoms despite the fact that the disease is progressing and the person who is infected remains highly contagious to others.
Once HIV progresses into AIDS, though, the disease’s symptoms become a little more obvious. Symptoms of AIDS can include:
- Rapid weight loss
- Profuse night sweats
- Recurring fever
- Extreme fatigue
- Prolonged swelling of the lymph glands in the groin, neck, or armpits
- Prolonged diarrhea
- Sores of the mouth, anus, or genitals
- Blotches on the skin, nose, eyelids, or inside the mouth
- Depression, memory loss, and other neurological disorders
Given that HIV does not tend to present any obvious symptoms until it has progressed into AIDS, the only way to reliably detect and diagnose HIV is with HIV testing. After collecting a blood sample and sending it to a testing lab, a NAT test is performed to detect both the presence of HIV as well as the person’s viral load, or how much of the virus is present in their blood.
The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13-64 should get tested for HIV at least once. They also recommend yearly HIV testing for people with certain HIV risk factors. This includes people such as:
- Anyone who has had vaginal or anal sex with someone who is HIV positive
- Men who have sex with other men
- Anyone who has had more than one sex partner since their last HIV test
- Anyone who has shared needles, syringes, or other drug injection equipment
- Anyone who has exchanged sex for drugs or money
- Anyone who has been diagnosed with or treated for another sexually transmitted disease
- Anyone who has been diagnosed with or treated for hepatitis or tuberculosis
- Anyone who has had sex with someone who has done anything listed above
- Anyone who has had sex with someone whose sexual history they do not know
How to Lower Your HIV/AIDS Risk
Improved HIV/AIDS awareness is one of the big reasons why AIDS-related deaths have been declining over the years, and promoting the importance of safe sexual practices is one of the key objectives of World AIDS Day. When used correctly, condoms are estimated to be about 90% effective at preventing HIV transmission and, outside of abstinence, are the most effective method available for reducing HIV risk.
HIV testing is also key to reducing HIV risk, and it is recommended that monogamous partners undergo HIV and other STD testing before engaging in unprotected sex. For those who are at increased risk of contracting HIV, regular HIV testing can also ensure that the disease is diagnosed quickly so that treatment can begin as soon as possible and efforts can be made to avoid transmitting the virus to others.