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HIV: causes, symptoms, testing, & treatment

HIV is short for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which causes AIDS. AIDS is short for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Worldwide, about 37 million people have HIV/AIDS. It’s an STD that destroys your immune system. Over time, HIV damages your immune system so badly that you’re unable to fight off other infections. It’s only in the last stages of HIV infection that you develop AIDS.

A person infected with HIV is described as being HIV positive (HIV+), seropositive, or person living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA).

HIV is an incurable disease. However, there are treatments available to prolong the time you remain healthy before you develop AIDS. Nowadays, someone who’s infected with HIV and on treatment can have a near-normal life expectancy.

How do you get HIV?

You can get HIV from infected bodily fluids, such as pre-ejaculate, semen, vaginal secretions, breast milk, and blood.

HIV is spread by both sexual and non-sexual activities.

Sexual activities include having unprotected oral, vaginal, and anal sex. Unprotected anal and vaginal sex carry much higher risks of HIV infection than unprotected oral sex.

Non-sexual activities include sharing of unsterilized hypodermic needles, receiving tainted blood transfusions, and breastfeeding. HIV can also be spread during childbirth from an infected mother to her baby.

You can't get HIV by sharing food or water, or being bitten by a mosquito.

Certain diseases can increase your risk of getting HIV:

What are the signs of HIV?

The first signs of an HIV infection can appear like a common cold or flu, which is why most people aren’t aware that they’ve been infected.

If you notice signs like a fever, headache, rash, diarrhoea, and sore throat three to six weeks after you’ve had unsafe sex, it may be wise to get tested for HIV. But of course, the trouble is most people wouldn’t first consider these signs of an HIV infection.

Without treatment, these flu-like symptoms clear up by themselves. However, if you’re infected with HIV, the infection doesn’t go away. Instead, over the next eight to ten years, the infection silently destroys your immune system. And you progress to the late stages of HIV infection also known as AIDS.

Late stages of HIV infection/AIDS
It often takes eight to ten years after being infected with HIV to develop serious illnesses. This is because by this time, HIV has destroyed your immune system to the point where your body can't fight off other infections.    

Late signs of HIV infection/AIDS:

  • Severe weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constant diarrhoea
  • Skin cancer
  • Meningitis

The only way to know for sure whether you’ve got an HIV infection is to get tested.

How can you protect yourself from getting HIV?

Since HIV is spread by sex, by sharing needles, and from mother to child, protecting yourself from HIV breaks down into three major categories.

To avoid sexual transmission of HIV

1. Always use condoms.
Male or females condoms can reduce your risk of getting HIV.

2. Be faithful to one partner or have fewer partners.
Having one sexual partner or fewer sexual partners can reduce your risk of being exposed to HIV infection or other STDS, which in turn can reduce your risk of HIV infection.

3. Male circumcision
If you’re a man, consider getting circumcised. Male circumcision in a hospital or clinic setting is shown to reduce the risk of getting HIV from a woman by 50 per cent. In comparison, female circumcision or female genital cutting/mutilation hasn’t been shown to be preventative for HIV infection.

4. If you’ve got an unusual discharge, sores, or pain when you urinate get tested for STDs.
These symptoms are signs that something is wrong. Chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis, genital herpes, trichomoniasis, and bacterial vaginosis have all been shown to increase your risk of getting and spreading HIV. So if you have these symptoms, get them checked out. Also, let your partner know, so he or she can get tested or treated too.

5. Get tested with your partner for HIV.
Whenever you’ve got a new partner, before having unprotected sex, get tested. You or your partner could be infected with HIV and not know it.

To avoid blood transmission of HIV

1. Use sterilised needles.
Every time you get a blood transfusion make sure new sterilised needles are used. The same principle applies if you use injection drugs – don’t share needles; use new ones each time you shoot up. The same goes for tattooing, body piercing, and acupuncture.

2. Make sure you’re receiving screened blood for blood transfusions.
HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis B can all be passed on by blood transfusions. So it’s important to make sure the blood you’re receiving is screened, particularly in countries where HIV is common.

To prevent mother to child transmission of HIV

1.Take antiretroviral drugs during your pregnancy and childbirth.
If you’re HIV positive and pregnant, you can take antiretroviral drugs during your pregnancy and childbirth to avoid passing HIV to your baby.

2.Caesarean section.
Consider getting a Caesarean section, if you’re HIV positive and pregnant. It decreases the chance that you’ll pass HIV on to your baby.

3. If possible, avoid breastfeeding.
When possible, the World Health Organization advocates HIV positive mothers to use breast milk replacement.
However, if you’re living in a place where safe drinking water isn’t available, and you’re unable to boil water daily, you may opt not to use breast milk replacement. The risk of catching a life threatening disease from unsafe drinking water may outweigh the risk of getting HIV infection from breast milk. These are things to consider with your health care provider. Consider getting a Caesarean section, if you’re HIV-positive and pregnant. It decreases the chance that you’ll pass HIV on to your baby.

These are things to consider with your health care provider.

How do you get tested for HIV?

In general, health care providers will ask you to wait for three months after you've had unprotected sex, used an unsterilised needle, or received a suspect blood transfusion before you get an HIV test.

If you want to get tested for HIV, your health care provider must provide you with counselling both before and after the test.

Window period
HIV tests measure your body’s immune system’s response to HIV infection. They measure whether or not your body has produced HIV antibodies. If you test as HIV positive, it means there are HIV antibodies in your blood.

It usually takes six to eight weeks to develop HIV antibodies. So to be on the safe side, health care providers ask you to wait for three months before getting tested for HIV – this is known as a window period.

If you get tested earlier, your test could come back as HIV negative when in fact you've got HIV. This is called a false negative.

Different types of HIV tests
Depending on where you live, there are a few different types of HIV tests available – blood, urine, or oral tests. Your health care provider may take a blood sample, ask you for a urine sample, or take a sample of your spit by swabbing your gums.

Urine tests are less accurate than blood or oral fluid tests for HIV detection.

When will you get your HIV test result?
The time you have to wait for your HIV test result depends on the type of test. In general, with a standard HIV test, it can take up to two weeks to get the result. However, if you’ve chosen a rapid HIV test, you can get your results within 15 minutes.

How do you get rid of HIV?

HIV is an incurable infection. There is no vaccine against the disease.

Without treatment, an infected person who’s adopted a healthy lifestyle can live an average of 10 years after being infected.

Current HIV medications can prolong the time you’re healthy and free of any symptoms of AIDS. These medications are called antiretrovirals (ARVs). They work by stopping the virus from multiplying in your body.

Comments
Hey Sam, since flu may be caused by a number of other reasons aside from a HIV infection I suggest you get a HIV test to get to knoe your status. Testing is the only sure way to get to know your HIV status. Check out this article for more infomation;- https://lovematters.co.ke/safe-sex/stds-stis/vct-and-hiv-testing-top-five-facts
Hi Nkwanga, if one has unprotected sex with a woman who who is HIV infected they will be at a risk of getting infected though the vaginal fluids. The answer to your question is yes, you could get infected. It is for this reason that if one is engaging with a person of unknown status they need to use a condom for protection. Check out this article for more informatin;- https://lovematters.co.ke/safe-sex/sti-prevention/staying-safe

Dear Evans, PEP works within 72 (3 days) after unprotected sex. Unfortunately it cannot work 7 days later. What you can do is to get tested after 1 month to see if you got exposed to HIV. Check out this article for more information: https://lovematters.co.ke/safe-sex/sti-prevention/preventing-hivaids-with-pep

Perhaps in future you may consider using  preventive measures such as condoms or Pre Exposure Prophlaxis to reduce the chances of getting infected. https://lovematters.co.ke/safe-sex/sti-prevention/pre-exposure-prophylaxis-top-facts

 

Hi Rhoda, vaginal discharge is perfectly normal and healthy, usually there is no need to discuss it with a doctor. However, what may be normal for one women may look completely different for another. However, if what you are experiencing now is a drastic change in smell, color or quantity, especially in combination with itching, pain or redness, it could be a sign of infection. If this is the case, you must consult your doctor and get it checked. Check out this article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/vaginal-discharge-top-facts

I tested HIV -ve but the person testing me said I should go back after some weeks for another test. Can my status change after this weeks?

Hi Caleb, sometimes one may need a retest depending on how soon they got tested after having unprotected sex. The tests can give accurate results from 14 days after unprotected sex. If you got tested earlier than this, it may be the reason why you were asked to get another test. For this reason ones result can be HIV negative and turn out to be HIV positive after a couple weeks. Check out this article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/safe-sex/stds-stis/hiv

Is is true that there are drugs that you can take to prevent HIV even if you sleep with someone who has it you won't get? Tell me also about the HIV self testing I saw in a billboard somewhere?

Dear Sarah, One can take PrEP which stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. It’s a way for someone who is at risk of HIV infection to reduce this threat. PrEP involves taking the anti-HIV drug Truvada on a daily basis. When taken correctly PrEP protects one from the risk of HIV infection. On your second question, yes one can buy a HIV testing kit and use it at home to test themselves. The test kit can be bought from a chemist. Check out the following articles for additional information;- 

https://lovemattersafrica.com/safe-sex/sti-prevention/pre-exposure-prophylaxis-top-facts

https://lovemattersafrica.com/safe-sex/stds-stis/my-first-time-hiv-self-test

Hey Cristil, HIV is the various that causes AIDS which is an acronym for Acquired Immune-Deficiency Syndrome. This is condition where ones immune systems have been compromised by the virus HIV. One can only get AIDS if they have HIV and HIV will remain in ones body even when they get to AIDS state, which also means if tested they will test positive for HIV. The HIV test will test whether one is HIV negative or positive. Check out this article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/safe-sex/stds-stis/vct-and-hiv-testing-top-five-facts

Hi, yes there are drugs one can take to prevent HIV infection. These drugs are known as PrEP which stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. They help persons who are at risk of HIV infection to reduce this threat. PrEP involves taking the anti-HIV drug Truvada on a daily basis. Check out the following article for more information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/safe-sex/sti-prevention/pre-exposure-prophylaxis-top-facts

Is there a chance you have sex with a HIV positive person and you don't get infected? I had sex with someone who I was told latter is HIV positive but when I got tested I was HIV negative as before??

Hey Erick, first there is no way to tell whether this person was HIV positive when you had sex. It is however possible to have sex with a person who is HIV positive and not get infected. It is important that one protects themselves at all times if they are having sex with a person of unknown status. Using condoms correctly and all the time will help protect one from the risk of getting HIV. Check out the following article;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/safe-sex/sti-prevention/staying-safe

Hi, visit a government health facility and you shall be guided. PrEP is recommended for people at high risk for HIV infection.This could be people who have multiple sexual partners, persons with frequent sexual transmitted infections or sex workers. If a person is not at a high risk of getting infected they do not qualify.  Heck out the following article for additional information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/safe-sex/sti-prevention/pre-exposure-prophylaxis-top-facts

hi there i just want to know if you get tested will the results still stand negative if you are positive, for patients security measures.. but the doctor will somehow know that the negative statement is positive..or will the test reveal the word positive on the test form.

Hi Cristil, where you are getting the test will determine the process. If you go to a lab, a sample will be collected and you may be asked to pick your results usually written based on the outcome of your test. But if you choose to go to HTS center formerly VCT centers, the process of testing will be explained to you. The provider performing the test will explain to you the process and how to interpret the results meaning you will be able to see the results and interpret the results for yourself. Healthcare providers are required to inform you of your results regardless of what your results turn out to be. Also, you can get a home test and do the test yourself at home. It comes with instructions and how to read the results. Check out the following articles for more information;- 

https://lovemattersafrica.com/safe-sex/stds-stis/hiv-what-to-expect-when-getting-tested

https://lovemattersafrica.com/safe-sex/stds-stis/my-first-time-hiv-self-test

Hi Mwebesa, circumcision reduces the risk of getting HIV by over 60 per cent based on conducted research. The removal of the foreskin ensures makes the skin on the head of the penis to harden which makes HIV transmission harder. Also, the lack of the foreskin ensures there’s no conducive environment for HIV since the head of the penis is exposed and not covered. However, circumcision doesn’t make one immune to HIV infection and for this reason one needs to include other methods to ensure they protect themselves from HIV. Check out the following article for additional information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/safe-sex/stds-stis/hiv

Good evening i just wnt to know: By having a weakend immune system does that means that you have aids or can there be many causes invloved in having a weakend immune system?

Hey Sandra, there are other causes that can lead to a weakened immune system. These include certain chemicals that may get into the body, Cancers among other Diseases. Yes, one can have a weakened immune system even when they are not HIV positive. However, the first place to start is to check once HIV status. 

Hello Cristil, most insurance companies will provide life insurance cover even when one is HIV positive. This may however affect the premiums one has to pay and they will also need this information disclosed upfront and they do that asking you to take up a medical which they pay over and above the forms you complete. Do speak to your preferred insurance provider for specifics. 

Hello Sandra, opportunistic infections are infections that arise as a result of a lowered immune system sometime as a result of HIV infection. When one is infected with HIV and they do not get treatment, HIV destroys the immune system to the point that the immune system is not able to protect the person from infection. At this point the person gets infections that take advantage of the lowered immune system.

hi So By getting am hiv test one should get an std test blood test and a pap test aswell to gaurentee that you are clean.TELL ME:OR IS DOING AN HIV TEST ENOUGH THAN YOU KNW U ARE CLEAN.

Hi Selpher, the tests kits are accurate. It is important that you follow the instructions provided for each kit. If the result is positive, it will be important to seek medical  advice as soon as possible. Have a look at the following article for additional information;- https://lovemattersafrica.com/safe-sex/stds-stis/my-first-time-hiv-self-test 

Dear Paul, Antiviral drugs are a class of medication used specifically for treating viral infections rather than bacterial ones. On the other hand, Antiretrovirals (ARVs) are medications that treat HIV. The drugs do not kill or cure the virus. However, when taken in combination they can prevent the growth of the virus. When the virus is slowed down, so is HIV disease. ARVs are an example of Antiviral drugs. 

Hey Didi, it is important for the person to seek medical advice from a Specialized HIV clinic. At the clinic they will get more tests done, including information and counselling and further advice on what steps to take. In the meantime however, they call the following number 1190 toll free (if in Kenya) from a Safaricom line between and 8 am and 10 am and there will be someone to listen and advice them. 

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