The body's immune system primarily functions to protect it from diseases and infections. As we leave our home to go to the office, the gym, or the park, we expose ourselves to different health risks that our immune system shields us from. With that in mind, what happens when an incurable virus, HIV, tries to destroy it?
How much do you know about HIV? Here are some interesting facts about it.
What is HIV?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It that attacks cells designed to protect the body from various infections and diseases. The virus occurs as two types, HIV-1 and HIV-2. Both types can be contracted through the exchange of bodily fluids between two persons, such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. The most common causes for HIV are unprotected (without a condom) sex and sharing of drug needles with an infected person.
HIV, when left unchecked, can lead to AIDS or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. In simpler words, AIDS is the advanced stage of an HIV infection or Stage 3 HIV.
Causes of HIV/AIDS
An HIV infection is often the result of unprotected sex with a person who is carrying the virus. This is because, during sex, substances secreted by the body is exchanged, such as semen, vaginal or rectal fluids, sometimes even blood. Other causes include:
- Intravenous drug use - people who participate in intravenous drug use are at risk of contracting the virus because of the unregulated usage of unsterilized needles and syringes. If a needle is shared with an infected person, the chances of the HIV virus being transmitted is high.
- Breastfeeding - this is the most common way HIV is transmitted to children. If a woman infected with the virus becomes pregnant, there is a 15 to 45% chance that her child will have the virus as well if neither of them takes HIV treatment.
- Tattoos and piercings - If needles used in tattoos and piercings are improperly sterilized, there is also a chance that the next person using them will get the virus. However, it is important to note that the HIV virus does not survive long outside the body and the chances of getting it this way are slim.
- Oral sex - this act involves putting the mouth on the penis, vagina or anus. There is little risk in getting the virus in this scenario. However, there is still a chance if the infected person ejaculates inside a mouth with bleeding gums or oral ulcers.
Physical contact with an HIV carrier's blood or semen does not always mean you will contract the virus. While the virus survives in these bodily fluids, it will not enter the body if it comes in contact with unwounded skin. What is the first sign of HIV?
HIV AIDS symptoms
If you suspect that you have been exposed to HIV, getting tested should become your first priority. Early detection of the virus can be tremendously helpful during treatment because the virus has not yet advanced throughout the body. However, if an HIV test is not an option for you, there are symptoms an HIV carrier can check. These symptoms resemble flu, such as:
- Swelling of the lymph nodes - these are areas located in your armpits, neck, and groin.
- Sore throat
- Night sweats - or sweating during your sleep despite a well-balanced room temperature
It is important to remember that these symptoms vary from person to person, and they may not occur right away after contracting HIV meaning in some cases, it could take years before the symptoms occur. This is why many HIV awareness organizations recommend immediate testing after possible exposure. This is to prevent the infection from advancing into AIDS.
Myths and misconceptions about HIV
An HIV infection can only be transmitted to another person under specific conditions. Understanding the facts and knowing the misconceptions will not only help you keep yourself safe, but it will also help you become more supportive if you have a colleague, a partner, or a family member who is carrying the virus.
The following are the common myths and misconceptions about HIV transmission:
- You can transmit HIV via simple physical contact such as hugs and handshakes.
Fact: This is not possible. The virus does not survive long outside the body. It almost immediately "dies" after exposure to air. Therefore, it is safe to hug people with HIV.
- Intercourse between two male individuals automatically "creates" an HIV infection.
Fact: This is also not possible. Despite the rise of HIV cases among the gay demographic, you can only contract HIV from another person who already has it, regardless if it's a man or a woman.
- You can get HIV from sharing food or reusing eating utensils used by an HIV positive person.
Fact: You cannot get HIV from these scenarios. If you are living with a partner or a family member with HIV, it is completely safe to share food or food utensils with them.
- You can get HIV from sharing bathtubs and using the same toilet an HIV positive person uses.
Fact: HIV doesn't survive long when exposed to water. You cannot get HIV from sharing a bathtub. It is also safe to use a toilet that an HIV positive person uses.
Transmission aside, there are also other misconceptions surrounding the virus that could be dangerous if left unchecked, such as
- You can avoid the virus by washing or showering after sex.
- You can avoid the virus using the "pullout" method.
- The virus can be killed using contraceptives.
On a side note, the viral load of a person living with HIV can become undetectable given early diagnosis and regular treatment. For this reason, the chances of passing on the virus becomes much less. It doesn't mean, however, that the person is cured of the virus.
Viral load refers to the amount of HIV in the blood, measured in copies/milliliter (copies/mL).
How long can you live with HIV?
Thanks to the advancement of medical technology, the life expectancy of an HIV carrier has significantly improved over the past decades. With the help of early diagnosis and continuous treatment, carriers of the virus can now live much longer and healthier lives. For this reason, the life expectancy of an HIV positive person can be as long as that of someone living without the virus.
These treatments include antiretroviral therapy (ART) that help suppress the level of the virus in the blood, and subsequently, minimize the life-impairing damages it causes.
How to test for HIV
You can get tested for HIV at a hospital, community health centre, or an HIV testing centre. There are also various HIV self-testing kits that you can use in the comfort of your home.
Researchers have tried to develop a vaccine for HIV but they are yet to be successful. HIV has no effective cure or vaccine yet. Contracting the virus means having it for a lifetime. Even though there are treatments available, always be cautious.