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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.
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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:

Related: 13 Common STIs and STDs in Men and Women

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.

Related: What To Expect When Getting Tested For HIV

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.

Related: The 3 stages of HIV

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.

Riddle ID

Did you learn something new?


Hi there,

This is totally normal. Many people are afraid of testing as well. the good news is that we have at-home self-testing kits that can be bought at your nearest pharmacy and used in the comfort of your home. An important thing to note is that taking the test is taking control of your health. If you are negative, you will take precautions to ensure that you protect yourself. If you are positive, visit the nearest health facility for a second test, if it still turns positive, the doctor will advise on the Antiretroviral treatment (ART). Go ahead and take the test! It is a great thing to do!

munene john
Tue, 11/02/2021 - 07:52 am
Can someone using PrEP spread the virus to another person after exposure with someone with the virus before he/she started using PrEP

Hello Munene, 

It can happen (because no drug is 100% effective) but very rarely. If you are HIV-negative and take PrEP as prescribed and have regular ongoing medical care, chances of you contracting HIV are very low and this means that spreading it is hard as well. The trick is to take your pills when you are supposed to because PrEP can be less effective when pills are missed.

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