HIV/AIDS – Symptoms, Causes and Risk Factors of HIV

HIV/AIDS - Symptoms, Causes and Risk Factors of HIV
  • HIV is a chronic virus that does not have a cure.
  • Research shows HIV can cause some unexpected symptoms.
  • With treatment, HIV-positive individuals can live long and healthy lives.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a serious health problem with no cure. What this means for the 1.2 million people in the U.S. diagnosed with this virus is they must learn how to treat and control its symptoms. The problem is that about 13 percent of the people living with HIV don’t even know they have it, which is why being aware of the symptoms and risk factors is crucial.¹

It’s possible that people who don’t know they have HIV could unknowingly be spreading it to others. So, how do you know if HIV is something you should be tested for? Here’s a rundown on this virus and some signs you might not realize can be linked to it.

What is HIV?

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). By damaging your immune system, HIV interferes with your body’s ability to fight infection and disease.

HIV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It can also be spread by contact with infected blood and from illicit injection drug use or sharing needles. It can also be spread from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding. Without medication, it may take years before HIV weakens your immune system to the point that you have AIDS.

There’s no cure for HIV/AIDS, but medications can control the infection and prevent progression of the disease. Antiviral treatments for HIV have reduced AIDS deaths around the world, and international organizations are working to increase the availability of prevention measures and treatment in resource-poor countries.

Stage 1: Acute HIV Infection

There are three stages to HIV that each come with its own set of symptoms. Acute HIV infection is the first stage, which usually develops within two to four weeks after exposure. What’s concerning is that a person might not realize they’ve contracted HIV because stage one usually consists of flu-like symptoms.

Mayo Clinic says that in some cases, symptoms can be mild and almost unnoticeable. Some signs of stage one HIV include:³

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches and joint pain
  • Rash
  • Sore throat and painful mouth sores
  • Swollen lymph glands
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Cough
  • Night sweats

Stage 2: Clinical Latency

Once a person with HIV moves past stage one, they will enter a second stage called clinical latency. This is when the virus is still present in the body but may not cause noticeable symptoms or infections.

Even though you don’t typically experience symptoms in stage 2, the virus is still multiplying in the body. Someone can live in this stage for eight years or longer before their case further develops into stage three. The only way to know for sure whether you have HIV is by getting tested.⁴

Stage 3: AIDS

If you don’t receive treatment for the first two stages of HIV, then it can progress into AIDS. This severe stage means the immune system has been damaged to the point where it cannot fight off opportunistic infections or diseases.

According to Mayo Clinic, these are medical problems that usually wouldn’t cause illness in someone with a healthy immune system. Unfortunately, someone with AIDS who does not receive treatment typically has a survival rate of three years.

Other Ways HIV Attacks the Body

We have reviewed the most common symptoms that occur in HIV and its three stages. But it’s possible for someone to experience uncommon symptoms as well. Very Well Health reports that some may endure more serious health problems than flu-like symptoms typically seen in early stages of HIV.

In one study, some individuals presented AIDS-defining symptoms when HIV was initially contracted. This means their first signs of illness were ones typically seen in later stages of HIV. There are various factors that could lead to this, such as if someone was infected with an extremely high viral load in early infection.⁵

Uncommon Symptoms

The Swiss researchers behind this discovery say that real-world incidence of atypical acute symptoms is about 15 percent, or one out of eight potentially missed diagnoses. This is important because it shows us that not all incidences of HIV will be asymptomatic or flu-like symptoms early on.

The following medical conditions are what some people experienced in early stages of HIV:

  • Esophageal candida
  • Cytomegalovirus of the gut or liver
  • Herpes zoster (shingles)
  • HIV wasting syndrome
  • Tonsillitis
  • Severe gastric bleeding
  • Gallbladder inflammation
  • Kidney failure
  • Herpes-related infection

Risk Factors

A person can contract HIV if they come into direct contact with certain bodily fluids from a person with a detectable viral load. The World Health Organization says the following behaviors and conditions increase your risk for HIV:⁶

  • Having unprotected sex.
  • Those with other sexually transmitted infections such as syphyllis, herpes, chlamydia, etc.
  • Sharing contaminated needles, syringes, and other equipment.
  • Receiving unsafe injections, blood transfusions and tissue transplantation.
  • Medical procedures that involve unsterile cutting or piercing.
  • Accidental needle stick injuries, including among health workers.

Demographics Most at Risk

While anyone of a certain race, sexual orientation, gender, or age can be affected by HIV, there are certain groups of people more at risks than others. Gay and bisexual men of all races and ethnicties are the most at risk of HIV in the U.S. When it comes to racial groups, Black people pose a higher risk.

The HIV infection rate in Black people accounts for 44 percent of new infections, nearly eight times the amount found in white people in 2009. Finally, the CDC says Latinos are also disproportionately affected by HIV by accounting for 20 percent of all new HIV infections.⁷

Testing for HIV

The most important thing you can do if you’re at risk of HIV is to get tested. There are over 161,000 people in the U.S. who have unknowingly contracted the virus. By remaining in the dark and not getting tested, their health is at risk of deteriorating. Nearly 40 percent of new infections are also transmitted by people who are unaware of their status.⁸

It’s recommended by the CDC that higher risk individuals get tested at least once a year. Everyone else should also get tested at least once as part of routine healthcare. There are three types of tests that are used to diagnose HIV:

  • NATs that look for HIV virus in the blood.
  • Antigen/antibody tests that detect HIV antibodies and antigens.
  • Antibody tests that look for antibodies to HIV in blood or oral fluid.

HIV Treatment Options

The CDC explains how the amount of HIV present in the blood is called a viral load. HIV medicine can help keep the viral load, also known as viral suppression, at a low level. This is defined as having less than 200 copies of HIV per millimeter of blood. With treatment, most people are able to control the virus within six months.⁹

A lot of progress has been made when it comes to living with HIV. Over the years, effective treatments have allowed patients to take control of their infection and live a normal life. It’s recommended that as soon as you’re diagnosed, you begin medical treatment to avoid further harm to your immune system, and spreading it to others.

Will There Ever Be a Cure for HIV?

Healthcare has come a long way with treating HIV patients. But will there ever be a way to cure a person completely of HIV? That’s something scientists are working on. In fact, some would say they are getting close. NBC News reports that HIV in a patient may have been cured for the first time in a woman with a stem cell transplant method.

The woman is living off HIV medication and is said to be asymptomatic and healthy. Despite this progress, researchers are remaining cautious and prefer using the term “remission” instead of “cure” at this point in time. While more work needs to be done, these strides in research are certainly steps in the right direction.¹⁰

Learn More About HIV By Talking to Your Doctor

Even though there are treatments available for HIV, prevention should still be a priority. Being aware of your risk factor and taking the proper precautions can help prevent contracting the virus. You can protect yourself from HIV by:¹¹

  • Getting tested regularly.
  • Avoiding risky sexual behaviors.
  • Using contraceptives during sex.
  • Limit your number of sexual partners.
  • Getting tested and treated for STIs.
  • Not injecting drugs.

Whether you think you’ve been exposed to HIV or want to learn more about the virus, go see your doctor. They can advise you on the next steps and provide more resources to help you avoid or treat infection.

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