What is HIV? What is AIDS?
immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the
immune system, the body?s natural defense system.
Without a strong immune system, the body has trouble fighting off disease. Both
the virus and the infection it causes are called HIV.
White blood cells are an important part of the immune system. HIV invades and
destroys certain white blood cells called CD4+ cells. If too many CD4+ cells
are destroyed, the body can no longer defend itself against infection.
The last stage of HIV infection is
AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). People with
AIDS have a low number of CD4+ cells and get infections or cancers that rarely
occur in healthy people. These can be deadly.
But having HIV does
not mean you have AIDS. Even without treatment, it takes a long time for HIV to
progress to AIDS-usually 10 to 12 years. If HIV is diagnosed before it becomes
AIDS, medicines can slow or stop the damage to the immune system. With
treatment, many people with HIV are able to live long and active lives.
What causes HIV?
HIV infection is caused by the
human immunodeficiency virus. You can get HIV from contact with infected blood,
semen, or vaginal fluids.
- Most people get the virus by having
unprotected sex with someone who has HIV.
- Another common way of
getting the virus is by sharing drug needles with someone who is infected with
- The virus can also be passed from a mother to her baby during
pregnancy, birth, or breast-feeding.
HIV doesn't survive well outside the body. So it cannot
be spread by casual contact such as kissing or sharing drinking glasses with an
What are the symptoms?
HIV may not cause symptoms
early on. People who do have symptoms may mistake them for the
mono. Common early symptoms include:
Symptoms may appear from a few days to several weeks
after a person is first infected. The early symptoms usually go away within 2
to 3 weeks.
After the early symptoms go away, an infected person
may not have symptoms again for many years. Without treatment, the virus
continues to grow in the body and attack the immune system. After a certain
point, symptoms reappear and then remain. These symptoms usually
- Swollen lymph nodes.
- Weight loss.
A doctor may suspect HIV if these symptoms last and no
other cause can be found.
Treatment usually keeps the virus under
control and helps the immune system stay healthy.
How is HIV diagnosed?
The U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) has approved tests that detect HIV
antibodies in urine, fluid from the mouth (oral
fluid), or blood. If a test on urine or oral fluid shows that you are infected
with HIV, you will probably need a blood test to confirm the results. If you
have been exposed to HIV, your immune system will make antibodies to try to
destroy the virus. Blood tests can find these antibodies in your blood.