What is HIV?
HIV is a virus that attacks a person’s immune system, making them more susceptible to infections and diseases. According to the CBC, there were approximately 1.5 million new infections worldwide in 2020, totaling 37.7 million people living with HIV.
According to some preliminary studies, the number of new infections may increase in the next few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, in 2020, multiple services were disrupted, including those related to HIV prevention, testing, and treatment. This may translate to an increased incidence of HIV worldwide, although some countries may be more affected than others.
What are the symptoms of HIV?
HIV can be difficult to recognize as the initial symptoms resemble the flu. For the first two to four weeks following the infection, you may experience:
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
Then, most people become asymptomatic until the virus takes over their body, at which point they develop AIDS.
However, please note that some individuals never experience symptoms until the late stage of the infection. That is why testing is of the utmost importance. Early diagnosis of HIV is essential to avoid developing AIDS and prevent the spreading of the virus to other people.
What are the stages of HIV?
HIV develops through three stages:
- Stage 1: acute HIV infection. Soon after being infected, you may develop the flu-like symptoms described above or remain asymptomatic. You are very contagious during this stage because your blood contains a lot of viruses.
- Stage 2: chronic HIV infection. We also call this phase asymptomatic infection or clinical latency. Some people are sick during stage 2, and others are not. While you are not as contagious as you are during stage 1, you can still spread the infection to others.
- Stage 3: AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). At this stage, you develop AIDS due to your HIV infection and have a profoundly damaged immune system. You become at very high risk of developing infections and diseases. People with AIDS who do not receive proper treatment survive an average of three years.
The speed at which you progress through the stages depends on whether or not you receive proper treatment. With adequate therapy, some never progress to AIDS, and most can live relatively normal and healthy lives. Once again, the key is early diagnosis!
How can you get HIV?
There are a few ways you can get HIV. The most common is through sexual contact, especially vaginal and anal intercourse. The other way to get HIV is by sharing needles to inject drugs. Finally, a mother who is HIV positive can pass it on to her child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.
You cannot catch HIV by sharing toilets, food, or drinks. It is also not transmitted by saliva, sweat, tears, or closed-mouth kissing.
How do you diagnose HIV?
Some of the risk factors for HIV include:
- Having unprotected sexual relations
- Having another STI such as herpes, chlamydia or gonnorhea
- Sharing contaminated needles
- Experiencing a needle stick injury at work if you are a healthcare working
If any of those risk factors apply to your situation, you must get tested for HIV regularly. There are two ways to do so. The first is to make an appointment with a healthcare provider. They will take a blood sample and test it in their labs to look for signs of infection.
If you do not have access to a healthcare provider or are not comfortable going to one, you can purchase a testing kit. There are now many at-home HIV tests that allow you to screen for HIV in the comfort of your home. They come with a detailed set of instructions to explain how to collect the blood sample. Follow them closely, send your test back to the laboratory and wait for the results. The delay depends on the company you use, but most have them ready in under a week.
Secure an appointment with a doctor right away if you test positive to discuss the next steps.
Please know that if you test for HIV right after your potential exposure, the result will not be valid. It takes, on average, 28 days after the initial infection for the test to detect HIV.
Can you treat HIV?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for HIV, meaning the virus will always stay inside your body. However, we can now offer treatments that prevent the virus from replicating and protect you from infections. The regimen usually includes a combination of different antiretroviral drugs, but your doctor will determine the specifics.
How can you prevent HIV?
You need to limit your exposure to risk factors to prevent HIV. This includes using a condom during sexual relations and never sharing needles with someone else. You should also get regularly tested for other STIs and get appropriate treatment as they increase your risk of contracting HIV.
Finally, remember to get tested regularly for HIV if you are exposed to a risk factor to ensure prompt treatment.