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What is HIV/AIDS? Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What is HIV/AIDS? Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What is HIV?

HIV is an acronym for human immunodeficiency virus. HIV is part of a class of viruses known as lentiviruses that preferentially attack cells in the immune system. HIV infects a type of immune system cell called a T-cell, which is responsible for creating antibodies: an essential component of the human immune response.

What is AIDS?

If an HIV infection is left untreated, the virus kills T-cells and the patient is unable to destroy pathogens in the body. A person with this stage of the disease is said to have AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) and death will result from the person’s body not being able to defend itself against infection. Without treatment, the progression from HIV infection to AIDS can take several years.

In the early days of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s, doctors and scientists had no idea what was causing AIDS and many people died without having access to care. Many gay and bisexual men were disproportionately affected, since the disease is transmitted more easily via unprotected anal rather than vaginal sex.

HIV was not isolated as the causative agent of AIDS until 1982. The virus is very similar to SIV, which is a less deadly virus that infects primates. Scientists think the virus crossed over to humans via contact between people and animals. Despite these breakthroughs, the complexity of the virus meant that effective therapies to treat HIV infection were not available until the mid-1990s.

In comparison to the early 1980s, when HIV infection meant a certain death sentence, it is now a chronic illness that is easily managed with a simple medication regimen – treatments are often just one pill per day.

HIV Signs and Symptoms

Because HIV destroys the cells that regulate the immune system, many of the initial symptoms of HIV infection (a process called seroconversion) involve immune responses: rash, fever, diarrhea, swollen glands, fatigue and headaches.

Symptoms in Women

  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Sores/ulcers in mouth/on genitals
  • Yeast infections
  • Bacterial vaginosis
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Recurring fever/chills

Symptoms in Men

  • Body rash
  • Fever
  • Severe headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes in groin and neck
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Ulcers in mouth/on genitals
  • Night sweats
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle aches/joint pain

HIV/AIDS Causes

The most common risk factors for transmitting the virus are:

  • Unprotected anal and vaginal sex. There is no evidence that HIV is transmitted via oral sex.
  • Receiving unscreened blood transfusions (very rare).
  • Sharing needles for intravenous drug use.
  • Improperly sterilized tattoo needles or similar.
  • In some cases, sharing other drug consumption paraphernalia, like pipes.

Various activities carry various risk factors for contracting HIV, the process of which is called seroconversion. Some activities are riskier than others: for example, the risk of contracting the virus from a tainted blood transfusion is over 90% while the risk from having unprotected sex with an infected person is substantially lower, depending on the type of sexual activity.

Nevertheless, most HIV infections occur as a result of having unprotected sex with an infected person. The process of seroconversion is thought to take place over the course of several days, during which there are usually several symptoms present.

If you or anyone you know are experiencing these types of symptoms, seek medical help immediately. You may not have HIV/AIDS, but if you are infected, it’s not a death sentence. HIV/AIDS is a chronic, manageable disease.

HIV/AIDS Treatment

Theirs is no cure for HIV/AIDS. That’s because the virus mutates rapidly once infection sets in, meaning HIV can often outwit many types of drugs by developing resistance to them. This was a huge problem in the early days of the AIDS epidemic because there was only one drug available – a highly-toxic molecule called AZT – and once the virus had adapted to this treatment, there were no other options available.

However, a revolution in the treatment of HIV/AIDS occurred in 1996 with the approval and release of HAART drugs (highly-active antiretroviral therapy). This treatment regime combines many types of drugs to produce a “cocktail” of medications that work synergistically to suppress the replication of the virus in the body and to prevent it from infecting other T cells. Some examples of these types of drugs include:

  • Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs)
  • Nucleoside or nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) both drugs interfere with the processes necessary for HIV to maintain its internal functionality within the body 
  • Protease inhibitors (PIs)inactivate HIV protease, a type of protein required for HIV to make copies of itself and thus spread throughout the body during infection. Examples include atazanavir (Reyataz), darunavir (Prezista), fosamprenavir (Lexiva) and indinavir (Crixivan).
  • Entry or fusion inhibitorsprevent HIV from binding to the surface of the body’s T cells. Examples include enfuvirtide (Fuzeon) and maraviroc (Selzentry).
  • Integrase inhibitorswork by disabling a viral protein called integrase, which HIV uses to insert its genetic material into T cells. Examples include raltegravir (Isentress) and dolutegravir (Tivicay).

In recent years, the HIV/AIDS crisis appears to be on the decline. This is largely for two reasons: increased awareness of how the virus is transmitted, as well as improved treatment options that prevent infected people from passing on the virus to their partners. Modern anti-HIV drugs are so effective that, in a recent study, not a single person was infected with the virus if they were having sex with an HIV-positive person who was on medication and verified to have been using it correctly.

In fact, in many cases with consistent use of HIV drugs, infected patients show zero copies of the virus in their blood. This means the person is “undetectable” and is unable to pass on the virus, even through unprotected sex, although they are still at risk of contracting other STIs, like gonorrhea or syphilis.

The biggest recent breakthrough in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, emerging in the 2010s, is a technique called PrEP, which stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis. In this regime, people who are at high risk of exposure to HIV, usually men who have sex with men (MSM), take a daily dose of an anti-HIV drug, usually called Truvada, before they are infected. These drugs prevent the entry of HIV into the body and are remarkably effective – recent studies show PrEP is at least 98% effective in preventing transmission of the disease. Truvada is generally well-tolerated over long periods. If taking a preventative drug daily seems too onerous, traditional methods for preventing the transmission of HIV – and other STIS – are consistent use of latex condoms and avoiding risky behaviours, like sharing needles.

The rapid development of new drugs and new treatment regimes has completely changed the face of HIV/AIDS diagnosis and treatment within the past couple of decades. It’s still a serious illness, but one with a myriad of treatment modalities for managing both transmission of the virus and any symptoms that may occur.

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