What is HIV?
It is transmitted through bodily fluids that include:
- vaginal and rectal fluids
- breast milk
The virus doesn’t spread in air or water, or through casual contact.
HIV is a lifelong condition and currently there is no cure, although many scientists are working to find one.
However, with medical care, including treatment called antiretroviral therapy, it’s possible to manage HIV and live with the virus for many years.
Without treatment, a person with HIV is likely to develop a serious condition called AIDS.
At that point, the immune system is too weak to fight off other diseases and infections.
What is AIDS?
AIDS is a disease that can develop in people with HIV. It’s the most advanced stage of HIV. But just because a person has HIV doesn’t mean they’ll develop AIDS.
HIV kills CD4 cells. Healthy adults generally have a CD4 count of 500 to 1,500 per cubic millimeter.
A person with HIV whose CD4 count falls below 200 per cubic millimeter will be diagnosed with AIDS.
A person can also be diagnosed with AIDS if they have HIV and develop an opportunistic infection or cancer that’s rare in people who don’t have this virus.
An opportunistic infection, such as pneumonia, is one that takes advantage of a unique situation, such as HIV.
There’s no cure for AIDS, and without treatment.
This may be shorter if the person develops a severe opportunistic illness.
However, treatment with antiretroviral drugs can prevent AIDS from developing.
If AIDS does develop, it means that the immune system is severely compromised.
It’s weakened to the point where it can no longer fight off most diseases and infections.
That makes the person vulnerable to a wide range of illnesses, including:
- oral thrush, a fungal infection in the mouth or throat
- cytomegalovirus (CMV), a type of herpes virus
- cryptococcal meningitis, a fungal infection in the brain
- toxoplasmosis, a brain infection caused by a parasite
- cryptosporidiosis, an infection caused by an intestinal parasite
- cancer, including Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) and lymphoma
HIV and AIDS: What’s the connection?
To develop AIDS, a person has to have contracted HIV. But having HIV doesn’t necessarily mean that someone will develop AIDS.
Cases of HIV progress through three stages:
- stage 1: acute stage, the first few weeks after transmission
- 2nd Stage: clinical latency, or chronic stage
- stage 3: AIDS
As HIV lowers the CD4 cell count, the immune system weakens. A typical adult’s CD4 count is 500 to 1,500 per cubic millimeter.
A person with a count below 200 is considered to have AIDS.
How quickly a case of HIV progresses through the chronic stage varies significantly from person to person.
Without treatment, it can last up to a decade before advancing to AIDS. With treatment, it can last indefinitely.
There is no cure for this virus, but it can be controlled. People with HIV often have a near-normal lifespan with early treatment with antiretroviral therapy.
Along those same lines, there’s technically no cure for AIDS.
Some of the ways HIV is spread from person to person include:
- through vaginal or anal sex — the most common route of transmission, especially among men who have sex with men
- by sharing needles, syringes, and other items for injection drug use
- by sharing tattoo equipment without sterilizing it
- during pregnancy, labor, or delivery from a woman to her baby
- during breastfeeding
- through “pre-mastication,” or chewing a baby’s food before feeding it to them
- through exposure to the blood of someone living with, such as through a needle stick
It’s theoretically possible, but considered extremely rare, for HIV to spread through:
- oral sex (only if there are bleeding gums or open sores in the person’s mouth)
- being bitten by a person (only if the saliva is bloody or there are open sores in the person’s mouth)
- contact between broken skin, wounds, or mucous membranes and the blood of someone living with HIV
The virus does NOT spread through:
- skin-to-skin contact
- hugging, shaking hands, or kissing
- air or water
- sharing food or drinks, including drinking fountains
- saliva, tears, or sweat (unless mixed with the blood of a person with HIV)
- sharing a toilet, towels, or bedding
- mosquitoes or other insects
What tests are used to diagnose?
Several different tests can be used to diagnose.
Healthcare providers determine which test is best for each person.
Early symptoms of HIV:
- swollen lymph nodes
- general aches and pains
- skin rash
- sore throat
- upset stomach
Symptoms of AIDS:
- recurrent fever
- chronic swollen lymph glands, especially of the armpits, neck, and groin
- chronic fatigue
- night sweats
- dark splotches under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
- sores, spots, or lesions of the mouth and tongue, genitals, or anus
- bumps, lesions, or rashes of the skin
- recurrent or chronic diarrhea
- rapid weight loss
- neurologic problems such as trouble concentrating, memory loss, and confusion
- anxiety and depression
Is there a vaccine?
Currently, there are no vaccines to prevent or treat HIV.
Research and testing on experimental vaccines are ongoing, but none are close to being approved for general use.