HIV: What You Need to Know

Find out how to prevent HIV, and the signs and symptoms of the disease with this fact sheet provided by Sharecare.

News that actor Charlie Sheen has HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) -- a condition he’s reportedly kept secret for years – is all over the Internet. His story throws a spotlight on a disease that affects roughly 1.2 million Americans today. Of those, about one person in eight doesn’t know they have it, and each year, about 50,000 more people become infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here’s what you need to know about HIV, including ways to prevent it, how to recognize its symptoms, and encouraging advances in treatments that are helping people with HIV live longer, healthier lives.

What is human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)?

HIV is a virus that slowly destroys the body’s immune system. The body can’t get rid of this virus, so once you have HIV, you have it for life. HIV develops in stages from the time of infection. If treated with proper medications, a person can live for many years with HIV and still look and feel healthy.

Is there a cure for HIV?

While there is no cure for HIV, it is possible to control the virus with proper medical treatment.

How is HIV diagnosed?

Typically the virus is diagnosed through a blood test or by checking your saliva for virus antibodies. The downside is that it takes your body up to 12 weeks to develop these antibodies, delaying diagnosis. Fortunately there is a newer type of test that can confirm infection more quickly; it checks for HIV antigens, which the virus produces right after infection. At-home tests in which you swab fluids from your gums or prick your finger are also available.

What are the symptoms?

Many people develop flu-like symptoms within two to four weeks of infection. These could include a sore throat, rash, fever, swollen glands and muscle aches. During this stage., the virus multiplies rapidly and is most contagious. HIV then moves into a latency stage when there are no symptoms.

How is acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) related to HIV?

AIDS is the last stage of HIV. It typically develops when a person isn’t diagnosed or adequately treated for HIV. It takes, on average, 10 years for AIDS symptoms to appear after the initial HIV infection. Poor nutrition, extreme stress and other medical conditions, such as hepatitis C, can shorten the time between HIV infection and AIDS. Once AIDS develops, the immune system is already severely damaged and unable to protect itself from simple infections, cancers and other immune diseases.

How is HIV spread?

The virus can be found in the blood, semen and vaginal fluids of a person who is infected with HIV. Having unprotected sex, especially anal and vaginal intercourse, can put you at risk. Tattooing and body piercings with contaminated equipment can also pass on the virus. Sharing needles with an intravenous drug user can transmit the virus since blood is present in needles and syringes. A mother who is HIV-positive can transmit it to her baby during pregnancy, childbirth or through breastfeeding.

How can I keep from getting HIV?

Practice safe sex: Unless you and your partner are monogamous and have both tested negative for HIV, use condoms and limit sexual contact with multiple partners. Avoid sexual practices that could cause tears in the mouth, vagina and anus. Don’t share toothbrushes, razors or other personal items that could be contaminated with infected blood or bodily fluids. It goes without saying not to use illegal drugs. People who are at high risk can also take an antiviral medication to prevent infection.

How is HIV treated?

The virus is treated with a mix of HIV medicines called antiretroviral therapy (ART), which decreases the amount of the virus in your body. Because of the improvements in HIV drugs, people with HIV can keep the virus suppressed, better fight off infections and expect the same longevity as someone without the virus. When treated consistently, you can live a longer, healthier life and prevent AIDS from developing.  Taking ART also reduces the chance of your infecting others and can reduce the chance of a pregnant woman spreading it to her baby.  It’s also important to be diagnosed and start treatment as early as possible.

How can I stay healthy with HIV?

If you have HIV, maintaining healthy lifestyle habits is just as important as following your HIV drug regimen.  Eating a healthy diet  will boost your immune system, build strength and increase your energy. Limit alcohol, which can interfere with your treatment..Since HIV affects your immune system, you’re more at-risk for food-borne illnesses, so make sure your meals are safely prepared and your food is stored safely. Watch your weight and get regular exercise --  but talk with your doctor first to make sure your fitness plan works with your HIV treatment program. 

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