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WHAT IS HIV-AIDS?

What is HIV?

HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, which is our body’s natural defence against illness. The virus destroys a type of white blood cell in the immune system called a T-helper cell, and makes copies of itself inside these cells. T-helper cells are also referred to as CD4 cells.

As HIV destroys more CD4 cells and makes more copies of itself, it gradually breaks down a person’s immune system. This means someone living with HIV, who is not receiving treatment, will find it harder and harder to fight off infections and diseases.

If HIV is left untreated, it may take up to 10 or 15 years for the immune system to be so severely damaged it can no longer defend itself at all. However, the speed HIV progresses will vary depending on age, health and background.  

Basic facts about HIV

  • HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus.
  • There is effective antiretroviral treatment available so people with HIV can live a normal, healthy life.
  • The earlier HIV is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can start – leading to better long term health.
  • HIV is found in semen, blood, vaginal and anal fluids, and breast milk.
  • HIV cannot be transmitted through sweat, saliva or urine.
  • Using male condoms or female condoms during sex is the best way to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
  • If you inject drugs, always use a clean needle and syringe, and never share equipment.
  • If you are pregnant and living with HIV, the virus in your blood could pass into your baby’s body, or after giving birth through breastfeeding. Taking HIV treatment virtually eliminates this risk.

What is AIDS?

AIDS is not a virus but a set of symptoms (or syndrome) caused by the HIV virus. A person is said to have AIDS when their immune system is too weak to fight off infection, and they develop certain defining symptoms and illnesses. This is the last stage of HIV, when the infection is very advanced, and if left untreated will lead to death.

Basic facts about AIDS

  • AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
  • AIDS is also referred to as advanced HIV infection or late-stage HIV.
  • AIDS is a set of symptoms and illnesses that develop as a result of advanced HIV infection which has destroyed the immune system.
  • Treatment for HIV means that more people are staying well, with fewer people developing AIDS.

Although there is currently no cure for HIV with the right treatment and support, people with HIV can live long and healthy lives. To do this, it is especially important to take treatment correctly and deal with any possible side-effects.

FAST FACTS:

  • HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system. If untreated, a person’s immune system will eventually be completely destroyed.
  • AIDS refers to a set of symptoms and illnesses that occur at the very final stage of HIV infection
  • There are three stages of HIV infection.
  • Stage 1 after initial infection can feel like flu, but not everyone will experience this.
  • Stage 2 may last for 10 years or so, with no more apparent symptoms.
  • Stage 3 is when the immune system has been so badly damaged that it can no longer fight off serious infections and diseases.
  • The earlier you have HIV diagnosed and start treatment, the better your likely long-term health.
  • Because many people do not have any symptoms for stages 1 and 2, HIV often gets transmitted from people who simply don’t know they are infected

Stage 1: Acute primary infection

Around one to four weeks after becoming infected with HIV, some people will experience symptoms that can feel a lot like flu. This may not last long (a week or two) and you may only get some of the flu symptoms – or none at all. Experiencing these symptoms alone is not a reliable way of diagnosing HIV.

You should always visit your doctor if you are worried you have been at risk of HIV infection, even if you don’t feel unwell or have any of the following symptoms. They can then arrange for you to have an HIV test.

Symptoms can include:

  • fever (raised temperature)
  • body rash
  • sore throat
  • swollen glands
  • headache
  • upset stomach
  • joint aches and pains
  • muscle pain.

These symptoms can happen because your body is reacting to the HIV virus. Cells that are infected with HIV are circulating throughout your blood system. Your immune system, in response, tries to attack the virus by producing HIV antibodies. This process is called seroconversion. Timing varies but it can take up to a few months to complete.

It may be too early to get an accurate HIV test result at this stage (depending on the type of HIV test, it can take anything from a few weeks to a few months for HIV to show up), but the levels of virus in your blood system are very high at this stage. Condoms are the best way way to protect yourself from HIV when having sex. Using a condom is especially important if you think you have been exposed to HIV.

Stage 2: The asymptomatic stage

Once the seroconversion stage is over, many people start to feel better. In fact, the HIV virus may not reveal any other symptoms for up to 10 or even 15 years (depending on age, background and overall health). However, the virus will still be active, infecting new cells and making copies of itself. Over time this will cause a lot of damage to your immune system.

Stage 3: Symptomatic HIV infection

By the third stage of HIV infection there has been a lot of damage to your immune system. At this point, you are more likely to get serious infections or bacterial and fungal diseases that you would otherwise be able to fight off. These infections are referred to as ‘opportunistic infections’.

Symptoms that you may have during this time can include:

  • weight loss
  • chronic diarrhoea
  • night sweats
  • a fever
  • a persistent cough
  • mouth and skin problems
  • regular infections
  • serious illnesses or diseases.

What is AIDS?

It’s important to understand that HIV and AIDS are not the same thing. AIDS is not a virus or disease in its own right - it is a particular set of symptoms. If a person develops certain serious opportunistic infections or diseases (as a result of damage to their immune system from advanced stage 3 HIV infection), they are said to have AIDS. There isn’t a test for AIDS and you can’t inherit it.

If you have advanced HIV (with AIDS-defining symptoms), it is really important to get the right treatment as soon as possible. With treatment it is still possible to recover from AIDS-related infections and diseases and bring HIV under control.

The earlier you have HIV diagnosed, and start treatment, the better your likely long-term health.