What Do You Know About HIV and AIDS?

In the early 1980s, America reeled from the discovery of a new, unidentified illness that seemed to affect mostly the gay, male community. While little was known about this disease, it was understood that those infected experienced a shortened lifespan. This disease came to be known as HIV, with its later stage known as AIDS.Red ribbon for HIV/AIDS

While most people, nowadays, know of HIV and AIDS, many do not understand how it affects the bodies and lives of those afflicted. September 18th is HIV and AIDS Awareness Day. Take this day to educate not only yourself, but those around you about the impact of HIV/AIDS. It affects more Americans than you think.

What is HIV? AIDS?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Unlike other viruses, your immune system cannot process and eliminate HIV. Because of this, once you contract HIV, you have it for life. The virus attacks your T-cells or CD-4 cells. These cells help protect your body from infection and disease, so, once destroyed by HIV, you become incredibly vulnerable to illness.

AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, is the final stage of HIV. Not every person with HIV, however, progresses to having AIDS. Since the mid-1990s, HIV has been combated by “antiretroviral therapy,” otherwise known as “ART.” ART is a daily dose of HIV medication that helps the body control the virus. It’s because of ART that many people with HIV can still live a long life without having to worry about contracting an opportunistic infection (OI) or certain cancers that HIV/AIDS can expose them to.

How does HIV spread?

HIV is spread when infected bodily fluids come into contact with another’s mucous membrane, damaged tissue, or are directly injected into your bloodstream. In other words, HIV can be spread by sexual activity with someone with HIV, or by sharing needles. While saliva itself cannot spread infection, it could be contaminated with the blood from a minor abrasion inside the mouth.

HIV cannot be passed on by air or water, insects, toilet seats, or by shaking hands. To learn more about HIV transmission, check out what the CDC has to say about HIV/AIDS.

Symptoms, Diagnosis, and TreatmentHIV and AIDS medication

After being exposed to HIV, you may experience severe flu-like symptoms within the next 2-4 weeks. Many have referred to this stage as feeling like you have “the worst flu ever.” Other people, however, do not exhibit any symptoms and can be HIV positive for years before a diagnosis occurs. These patients would most likely not begin to feel sick until their HIV progresses towards AIDS.

The next stage, known as the clinical latency stage, may exhibit little to no symptoms. Many HIV positive people can live in this stage for a very long time with the help of ART. However, HIV can still be transmitted by someone in the clinical latency stage.

If you experience any of the symptoms listed by aids.gov, make sure you get tested immediately. Besides your doctor, there are many centers you can go to get tested for acute HIV. Use the HIV Testing and Care Services Locator to find the testing center nearest you.

Who HIV/AIDS affects

While anybody can contract HIV, the population most heavily burdened by HIV consists of gay or bisexual men. Drug users are also vulnerable to HIV due to their needle use. While these two groups may be small portions of the overall community, more than 1.2 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV. And what’s more worrisome, 1 in 8 of those infected are unaware of their infection.You are either affected or infected with HIV/AIDS

The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested. The best way to avoid contracting HIV is to practice safe sex and know the sexual health of your partners. Sharing needles should also be avoided. However, people with HIV should not.

Raising awareness

Due to the populations that HIV predominantly affects, those with HIV are often mistreated and labeled as outcasts. Too often, people don’t fully understand how HIV is transmitted and choose to simply avoid those with HIV to protect themselves from infection. This trend is what HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is trying to combat.

While you may fear how someone with HIV may affect your own life, imagine what it’s like for that person who, at one point in time, received that diagnosis. Suddenly, that person has to change their lifestyle, take daily medication, and talk to their partners about their new health status that may just push their loved ones away. Remember, while ART is an effective medication for suppressing the symptoms of HIV and decreasing the chance of transmission, there is currently no cure for HIV.

Nowadays, HIV/AIDS is much more widely recognized and has led to a better understanding of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. The stigma, however, still follows the illness. On this HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, take a second to research both diseases to further understand how they function and  to help educate people on how we can improve the quality of life for those living with HIV/AIDS.

Images courtesy of Trygve Utstumokiril pipo, and Jon Rawlinson via Flickr.