Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic and potentially life–threatening condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This virus impairs the immune system, making it difficult for the body to defend against infections and diseases.
HIV is primarily transmitted through sexual contact, but it can also spread through contact with infected blood or by sharing needles during illicit drug use. Additionally, mother–to–child transmission can occur during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. Without treatment, HIV can progressively weaken the immune system over the course of several years until it develops into AIDS.
While there is currently no cure for HIV/AIDS, medical advancements have led to the development of antiviral medications that effectively control the infection and prevent the progression of the disease. These treatments have significantly reduced AIDS–related deaths worldwide.
The symptoms of HIV and AIDS vary, depending on the phase of infection.
- Primary infection (Acute HIV): Following HIV infection, some individuals may experience primary (acute) HIV infection, presenting flu–like symptoms within 2 to 4 weeks that can last for a few weeks. These symptoms include fever, headache, muscle and joint pain, rash, sore throat, painful mouth sores, swollen lymph glands (mainly in the neck), diarrhea, weight loss, cough, and night sweats. Although the symptoms may be mild and easily overlooked, the viral load in the bloodstream is significantly high during this period, making the infection highly transmissible compared to later stages.
- Clinical latent infection (Chronic HIV): During this stage of infection, HIV remains present in the body and can be found in white blood cells. However, it’s important to note that many individuals may not experience any symptoms or infections at this time. If antiretroviral therapy (ART) is initiated, this stage can persist for many years. Nevertheless, some people may develop more severe disease relatively early on in this stage.
- Symptomatic HIV infection: As the virus continues to replicate and damage immune cells responsible for fighting off infections, you may experience mild infections or persistent signs and symptoms, including fever, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes (often an early indication of HIV infection), diarrhea, weight loss, oral yeast infections (thrush), shingles (herpes zoster), and pneumonia.
- Progression to AIDS: The availability of improved antiviral treatments has significantly reduced AIDS–related deaths worldwide, even in resource–limited regions. These life–saving therapies have led to a remarkable decline in the development of AIDS among individuals with HIV in the United States today. Without treatment, HIV typically progresses to AIDS within 8 to 10 years.
When AIDS occurs, it severely weakens the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to opportunistic infections or cancers that would not normally cause illness in those with a healthy immune system. Some of the signs and symptoms of these infections may include:
- Recurring fever
- Chronic diarrhea
- Swollen lymph glands
- Persistent white spots or unusual lesions on the tongue or in the mouth
- Persistent, unexplained fatigue
- Weight loss
- Skin rashes or bumps
If you suspect you might have been exposed to HIV or are at risk of contracting the virus, it is essential to seek medical attention from a healthcare provider promptly.
HIV infection occurs when infected blood, semen, or vaginal secretions enter the body, which can happen through various routes:
- Sexual intercourse: Infection can occur through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an HIV–positive partner, as the virus can enter your body through their blood, semen, or vaginal secretions. Mouth sores or small tears that may develop during sexual activity can also provide entry points for the virus into your body.
- Sharing needles: Sharing used needles and syringes for drug injection greatly raises the risk of getting HIV and other infectious diseases like hepatitis.
- Blood transfusions: HIV transmission can occur through blood transfusions. In low–income countries without the capability to screen all donated blood, the risk of transmission may be higher.
- During pregnancy or delivery or through breastfeeding: Infected mothers can transmit the virus to their babies. However, the risk can be significantly reduced if HIV–positive mothers receive treatment during pregnancy.
HIV cannot be transmitted through ordinary contact, so activities like hugging, kissing, dancing, or shaking hands with someone who has the infection will not result in the transmission of HIV or AIDS. It’s important to know that HIV is not spread through the air, water, or insect bites as well. Transmission of HIV occurs through specific modes, such as unprotected sexual contact, sharing needles with an infected person, or from an infected mother to her baby during childbirth or breastfeeding.
HIV/AIDS can infect anyone of any age, color, gender, or sexual orientation. However, several risk factors may contribute to a person’s susceptibility to HIV/AIDS, such as:
- Unprotected sex: Having sex without condom and having several sexual partners increases one’s risk of getting HIV. Anal sex is more dangerous than vaginal sex. It is recommended that every sexual intercourse, one should use a fresh latex or polyurethane condom. An internal condom, also known as a female condom, can also be used. It is inserted inside the vagina or anus.
- Having an STI: Being diagnosed with STIs can put a person at a higher risk for an HIV infection. Open sores or lesions can serve as entry points for HIV into the body. Many STIs cause open sores on the vaginal area.
- Using illicit injection drugs: Sharing contaminated needles and syringes to take drugs can get a person infected with HIV. Users of illegal injectable substances are more exposed to blood droplets from other people which increase the risk for infection.