Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). HIV is an infectious agent that invades and disables a person’s immune system, the body’s natural defense against disease. There is no cure for HIV infection. HIV‑infected persons who do not receive appropriate medical care may become ill and be diagnosed with an AIDS defining condition.
AIDS is a syndrome, or collection of signs and symptoms, that is attributed to the natural course of HIV infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has classified a total of 27 different diagnoses and conditions as AIDS‑defining illnesses. Once diagnosed with AIDS, many people can subsequently begin, resume, or modify HIV treatment regimens and maintain or return to productive, relatively healthy lifestyles. Without adequate treatment, AIDS is a fatal condition.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of HIV vary, and many people who are infected with HIV do not show any signs or symptoms.
Some early symptoms may include:
- Fever (this is the most common symptom)
- Swollen glands
- Sore throat
- Muscle and joint aches and pains
These symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. However, you should not assume you have HIV if you have any of these symptoms. Each of these symptoms can be caused by other illnesses. Remember, many people who are infected with HIV do not have any symptoms for 10 years or more.
If you have HIV and you are not taking HIV medication (antiretroviral therapy), eventually the virus will weaken your body’s immune system. The onset of symptoms signals the transition from HIV to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). Many of the severe symptoms and illnesses of HIV disease come from the opportunistic infections that occur because your body’s immune system has been damaged.
During this late stage of HIV infection, people infected with HIV may have the following symptoms:
- Rapid weight loss
- Recurring fever or profuse night sweats
- Extreme and unexplained tiredness
- Prolonged swelling of the lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck
- Diarrhea that lasts for more than a week
- Sores of the mouth, anus, or genitals
- Red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
- Memory loss, depression, and other neurologic disorders.
Each of these symptoms can be related to other illnesses; the only way to know for sure if you are infected with HIV is to get tested.
Transmission (How it Spreads)
The most common way a person can become infected with HIV is through exposure to HIV‑infected blood or other infectious body fluids including semen (including pre-seminal), vaginal fluid, and breast milk. HIV is primarily transmitted through unprotected sex (sex without a condom or other barrier use) and/or injection drug use (sharing of contaminated syringes and other injection equipment). Children born to HIV-infected mothers and rarely, healthcare workers caring for HIV-infected patients, and recipients of blood transfusions or organ donations can also be at risk.
Testing and Treatment
Many people living with HIV do not show signs or symptoms of the virus. The only way to know your HIV status for sure is to get an HIV test. There are a number of venues to get tested in Monterey County, including community based organizations, clinics, and your own medical provider. The Monterey County HIV Resource Guide is a great place to begin your search for a testing location.
Although HIV/AIDS can be fatal if not treated, there are more treatment options available to people than ever before. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) can dramatically prolong the lives of many people infected with HIV and lower their chance of infecting others. It is important that people get tested for HIV and know that they are infected early so that medical care and treatment have the greatest effect.
Click here for information on local AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP) enrollment sites.
Today, more tools than ever are available to prevent HIV. In addition to talking with sexual partners about their STD and HIV status, knowing your HIV status and testing on a regular basis, never sharing needles, and using condoms correctly and consistently, you may be able to take advantage of newer biomedical options such as pre-exposure and post-exposure prophylaxis.
- Use condoms consistently and correctly. When used consistently and correctly, condoms are highly effective in preventing HIV.
- Choose less risky sexual behaviors. Oral sex is much less risky than anal or vaginal sex. Anal sex is the highest-risk sexual activity for HIV transmission. If you are HIV-negative, insertive anal sex (“topping”) is less risky for getting HIV than receptive anal sex (“bottoming”). Remember: HIV can be sexually transmitted via blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluid, and vaginal fluid. Sexual activities that do not involve the potential exchange of these bodily fluids (e.g. touching) carry no risk for getting HIV.
- Reduce the number of people you have sex with. The number of sex partners you have affects your HIV risk. The more partners you have, the more likely you are to have a partner with HIV whose viral load is not suppressed or to have a sex partner with a sexually transmitted disease. Both of these factors can increase the risk of HIV transmission. Remember: one in six people living with HIV in the U.S. are unaware of their infection.
- Talk to your doctor about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is taking HIV medicine daily to prevent HIV infection. PrEP should be considered if you are HIV-negative and in an ongoing sexual relationship with an HIV-positive partner. PrEP also should be considered if you are HIV-negative and have had a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or any anal sex (receptive or insertive) with a male partner without condoms in the past six months and are not in an exclusive relationship with a recently tested, HIV-negative partner.
- Talk to your doctor right away (within 3 days) about post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) if you have a possible exposure to HIV. An example of a possible exposure is if you have anal or vaginal sex without a condom with someone who is or may be HIV-positive, and you are HIV-negative and not taking PrEP. Your chance of exposure to HIV is lower if your HIV-positive partner is taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) consistently and correctly, especially if his/her viral load is undetectable. Starting PEP immediately and taking it daily for 4 weeks reduces your chance of getting HIV.
- Get tested and treated for other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and encourage your partners to do the same. If you are sexually active, get tested at least once a year. STDs can have long-term health consequences. They can also increase your chance of getting HIV or transmitting it to others.
- If your partner is HIV-positive, encourage your partner to get and stay on treatment. ART reduces the amount of HIV virus (viral load) in blood and body fluids. I f taken consistently and correctly, ART can keep people with HIV healthy for many years, and greatly reduce their chance of transmitting HIV to sex partners.
You can also reduce your risk of getting HIV by not having sex. If you aren’t having sexual contact, you are 100% protected from getting HIV in that way. Alternatively, if you are having sex, you can reduce your risk if you and your partner have both been tested and know that you are both HIV-negative and you practice monogamy. Being monogamous means you are in a sexual relationship with only one person and both of you are having sex only with each other. However, monogamy won’t protect you completely unless you know for sure that both you and your partner are not infected with HIV.
How to Select a Health Care Plan if you are living with HIV or HCV or if you are considering PrEP