HIV in Blood Stream Illustration

HIV Basics

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that can lead to AIDS (a severe phase of HIV infection) if not treated. The immunodeficiency in HIV means this virus attacks the body’s immune system

HIV spreads through certain bodily fluids that attack the body’s immune cells, specifically the CD4 cells (aka T cells). Over time, HIV can destroy enough CD4 cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. Unlike other viruses, our bodies can’t get rid of HIV completely—once you get HIV, you have it for life.

Ways HIV can be Transmitted

HIV is transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids that contain a detectable viral load. These bodily fluids include:

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum)
  • Rectal fluids
  • Vaginal fluids
  • Breast milk

For transmission of HIV to occur, the fluids need to come into contact with:

  • a mucous membrane (rectum, vagina, penis, mouth)
  • damaged tissue (open cuts and sores)
  • or directly injected into the bloodstream (needle or syringe)

HIV is not transmitted by:

  • Air or water
  • Saliva, sweat, tears, or urine
  • Closed-mouth kissing / “social” kissing
  • Sharing food and drinks
  • Consuming food handled by someone with HIV
  • Casual touching such as hugging or shaking hands
  • Sharing toilets
  • Insects (mosquitos) or pets

How HIV is Spread from Person to Person

In the United States, HIV is mainly spread through anal and vaginal sex without protection (condoms or medicine to treat or prevent HIV) and sharing needles, syringes, and drug injection equipment.

 

Transmission from mother to child:

HIV can be transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. However, advancements in HIV prevention and treatment have made mother-to-child transmission less common.

It is recommended that pregnant mothers test for HIV and begin treatment immediately if the mother is diagnosed. The risk of transmitting HIV to the baby is less than 1% if a mother with HIV takes HIV medicine daily as prescribed throughout pregnancy and childbirth, and gives HIV medicine to her baby for 4 to 6 weeks after giving birth. It is also recommended in the United States that mothers do not breastfeed their child after birth.

 

Rare cases of HIV transmission include:

  • Oral sex – oral ulcers, bleeding gums, or genital sores and presences of other STIs may increase the risk.
  • Getting stuck by a contaminated needle or sharp object.
  • Blood transfusion, blood products, or organ and tissue transplants – US blood supply and donated organs and tissues are thoroughly tested.
  • Donating blood
  • Pre-chewed food – contamination occurs when blood from a caregiver’s mouth mixes with food that is pre-chewed before feeding to an infant.
  • Biting – transmission can occur when there is contact between broken skin, wounds, or mucous membranes and blood or body fluids mixed with the blood of a person who has HIV. Documented cases have involved severe trauma with extensive tissue damage and the presence of blood. There is no risk of transmission if the skin is not broken.
  • Deep, open-mouth kissing – can occur if both partners have sores or bleeding gums and blood from the partner with HIV gets into the bloodstream of the HIV-negative partner. HIV is not transmitted through saliva.
  • Female-to-female – vaginal fluids and menstrual blood may carry the virus and exposure of these fluids through mucous membranes (in the vagina or mouth) could potentially lead to HIV infection.

Get Tested for HIV

Knowing your status is important because it helps you make healthy decisions to prevent getting or transmitting HIV. Testing is also the only sure way to know if you have HIV. Prism Health North Texas offers free HIV and STI testing at all of our clinic locations.

Request a Testing Appointment
Female Medical Worker Prepping Male Patient Arm for Testing

Symptoms of HIV

There are symptoms of HIV, but not everyone experiences the same symptoms. Some may experience no symptoms at all. It all depends on the person and how long they have been living with the virus. Therefore, the best way to know if you have HIV is to get tested.

There are three main stages of HIV – Acute HIV infection, chronic HIV infection, and AIDS.

Some people experience flu-like symptoms within 2 to 4 weeks after HIV infection (stage 1 – acute HIV infection).

Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Rash
  • Night sweats
  • Muscle aches
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Mouth ulcers

Don’t assume you have HIV because you’re experiencing flu-like symptoms. Many illnesses have these symptoms. However, if you think you have been exposed to HIV through sex or drug use and you have flu-like symptoms, seek medical care, and ask for a test to diagnose acute infection. You can make an appointment at one of our clinics by visiting our testing page or calling 214-521-5191.

Stages of HIV Infection

Stage 1 - Acute HIV Infection

Within 2 to 4 weeks after HIV infection, people may experience flu-like symptoms that can last for a few weeks. Some may not feel sick right away or any sickness at all.

Stage 2 - Chronic HIV Infection

This stage is called asymptomatic HIV infection or chronic HIV infection because HIV is still active but reproduces at very low levels. You may not have any symptoms or get sick during this time. For people who aren’t taking medicine to treat HIV, this period can last a decade or longer, but some may progress through this phase faster.

Stage 3 - AIDS

AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is the last stage of HIV infection. People with AIDS have severely damaged immune systems and they get an increasing number of severe illnesses, called opportunistic illnesses. People are diagnosed with AIDS if they have a CD4 count of less than 200 cells/ mm or if they have certain opportunistic infections. HIV medicines can help people at this stage, but without treatment, people with AIDS usually only live 3 to 5 years.

HIV Treatment

Antiretroviral Therapy or ART is the type of medicine that treats HIV. ART cannot cure HIV, but it can help people with HIV stay healthy and live longer.

For most people, ART is made up of 3 different medications. Sometimes these medications are all in the same pill. Like any medicine, there are some risks and side effects with ART.

When someone is on ART, it is important that they take their medication every day (medication adherence). Good medication adherence helps bring the virus down to low levels in the body. The goal is to have an undetectable viral load, usually less than 50 copies of HIV per milliliter of blood (<50 copies/mL).

Undetectable = Untransmittable 

An undetectable viral load is also untransmittable, meaning that a person with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV to someone else. Good medication adherence will help maintain an undetectable viral load.

U=U Text on Purple Background

HIV Prevention

  • Talk with your partners about safe sex and HIV/STI testing BEFORE you have sex.
  • Regularly getting tested and knowing your status is a key component to HIV and STI prevention and keeping you and your partners safe. Prism Health North Texas offers free HIV/STI testing along with treatments at little or no cost.
  • Use condoms and lube every time you have anal or vaginal sex. Visit FreeNicePackage.com for free condoms and lube delivered right to your door.
  • If you are at high risk for HIV, consider taking PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). PrEP is a daily medication used to prevent the acquisition of HIV. PrEP is over 96% effective when used as prescribed. Prism Health North Texas offers PrEP services at all clinics.
  • If you think you have been exposed to HIV within the last 3 days, ask a provider about PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) right away. PEP can prevent HIV, but it must be started within 72 hours of exposure.
  • Choose activities with little to no risk for HIV like oral sex.
  • Limit your sex partners.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. Alcohol and drugs can affect your judgment, lower your inhibitions, and increase your risk for HIV.
  • Don’t inject drugs, or if you do, don’t share needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment. Learn how to effectively clean syringes →

 

Content Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV.gov, TheBody.com

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