What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human immunodeficiency virus. It is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Getting infected with HIV weakens a person’s ability to fight infections. This is because the virus destroys a specific type of white blood cell called a CD4 cell. The main function of CD4 cells is to fight infections. When the CD4 cell count gets low, the body gets more prone to a lot of diseases.

What is AIDS?

AIDS is nothing but an advanced stage of HIV infection. When the infection-fighting CD4 cells drop to a very low level, a person’s ability to resist infections is lost. People infected with HIV are said to have AIDS usually when the count of the CD4 T-cell falls below 200 (normal CD4 counts are between 500 and 1,600). It can take many years for a person infected with the HIV virus to develop AIDS. So, having HIV does not always mean that you have AIDS.

How does someone get infected with HIV?

HIV spreads from one person to another when an HIV-infected person’s body fluids enter another person’s bloodstream. These body fluids include blood, semen, vaginal fluids or breast milk. The route of entry into the blood can be via the mouth, anus, sex organs, or damaged skin. Having unprotected sexual intercourse with an HIV-infected person is one of the commonest way one can get HIV.

However, HIV doesn’t spread via:

  • Touching or hugging someone who has HIV/AIDS
  • Sharing bathrooms or swimming pools
  • Eating food with someone who has HIV/AIDS
  • Insect bites

In fact, HIV cannot survive outside the human body for long. Once the body fluid in which it is contained dries up, the virus dies.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

First stage: Acute infection
Within a month after getting infected with HIV, you may feel sick with flu-like symptoms. These include fever, sore throat, and skin rashes. These often go away within a week to a month.

Second stage: Clinical latency
Thereafter, the infected person can have HIV for many years before feeling ill. During this period of latency, the virus is still active, but reproduces at very low levels. With the passage of time, once the immune system gets badly damaged beyond a limit, the person becomes vulnerable to infections. He may have a persistent fever, a feeling of tiredness all the time, and rapid weight loss.

Third stage: AIDS
When the CD4 cell count falls below 200, the patient is said to have progressed to AIDS. Now, severe malnutrition, chronic diarrhea, lung infectious, brain infections & skin tumors (like Kaposi’s sarcoma) may appear.

How do I know if I’ve got HIV?

Even if any of the above mentioned symptoms are present, one should not simply assume that he has HIV. Other common illnesses can also cause any of these symptoms. The only way to know if you have HIV is to get your blood sample tested for HIV.

Is there a treatment for HIV?

Without treatment, almost every person infected with HIV will ultimately get AIDS. While HIV cannot be cured, there are treatments (called AntiRetroviral Therapy or ART) that can significantly slow down (or even prevent) the progression of HIV infection into AIDS. Treatment can prolong the lives of many HIV-infected people and lower their chance of infecting others.

At this time, there’s no cure for HIV. However, with the medications available today, a lot of people live for decades with HIV or AIDS and have a normal or near-normal life span with little or minimal interruption in quality of life.

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Dr Nitin Ranjan

Consultant dermatologist at Dermacosm clinic
Dr Nitin Ranjan is a consultant dermatologist at Dermacosm clinic. He possesses more than 7 years of experience in diagnosing & treating all skin, hair, and nail diseases.
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