What Is AIDS?
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome:
- Acquired means you are infected through an external source
- Immune Deficiency means a weakness in the body’s system that fights diseases
- Syndrome means a group of health problems that make up a disease
- AIDS is caused by a virus called HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. If you get infected with HIV, your body will try to fight the infection. It will make “antibodies”, special molecules that are supposed to fight HIV. When you get a blood test for HIV, the test looks for these antibodies. If you have them in your blood, it means that you have HIV infection. People who have the HIV antibodies are called “HIV-Positive”
- Being HIV-positive, or having HIV disease, is not the same as having AIDS. Many people are HIV-positive but don’t get sick for many years. As HIV disease continues, it slowly wears down the immune system. Viruses, parasites, fungi and bacteria that usually don’t cause any problems can make you very sick if your immune system is damaged. These are called “opportunistic infections”
How Do You Get AIDS?
You don’t actually “get” AIDS. You might get infected with HIV, and later you might develop AIDS. You can get infected with HIV from anyone who’s infected, even if they don’t look sick, and even if they haven’t tested HIV-positive yet.
The blood, vaginal fluid, semen, and breast milk of people infected with HIV has enough of the virus in it to infect other people.
Most people get the HIV virus by:
- Having unprotected sex
- Sharing a needle (shooting drugs) with someone who’s infected
- Being born when their mother is infected, or drinking the breast milk of an infected woman
Getting a transfusion of infected blood used to be a way people got AIDS, but now the blood supply is screened very carefully and the risk is extremely low. There are no documented cases of HIV being transmitted by tears or saliva, but it is possible to be infected with HIV through oral sex or in rare cases through deep kissing, especially if you have open sores in your mouth or bleeding gums.
What Happens If I’m HIV Positive?
You might not know if you get infected by HIV. Some people get fever, headache, sore muscles and joints, stomach ache, swollen lymph glands, or a skin rash for one or two weeks. Most people think it’s the flu. Some people have no symptoms. The virus will multiply in your body for a few weeks or even months before your immune system responds. During this time, you won’t test positive for HIV, but you can infect other people. When your immune system responds, it starts to make antibodies. When this happens, you will test positive for HIV. After the first flu-like symptoms, some people with HIV stay healthy for ten years or longer. But during this time, HIV is damaging your immune system.
One way to measure the damage to your immune system is to count your CD4+ cells. These cells, also called “T-helper” cells, are an important part of the immune system. Healthy people have between 500 and 1,500 CD4+ cells in milliliter of blood. Without treatment, your CD4+ cell will most likely go down. You might start having signs of HIV disease like fevers, night sweats, diarrhea, or swollen lymph nodes. If you have HIV disease, these problems will last more than a few days, and probably continue for several weeks.
How Do I Know If I Have AIDS?
The HIV infection becomes AIDS when your immune system is so damaged that you have less than 200 CD4+ cells or you get an opportunistic infection. There is an “official” list of these infections, put out by the Centers for Disease Control. The most common ones are:
- PCP (Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia), a lung infection
- KS (Kaposi’s sarcoma), a skin cancer
- CMV (Cytomegalovirus), an infection that usually affects the eyes
- Candida, a fungal infection that can cause thrush or infections in your throat or vagina
AIDS-related diseases also include serious weight loss, brain tumors, and other health problems. Without treatment, these opportunistic infections can kill you. AIDS is different in every infected person. Some people die soon after getting infected, while others live fairly normal lives for many years, even after they “officially” have AIDS. A few HIV-positive people stay healthy for many years even without taking anti-HIV medications.
Is There A Cure For AIDS?
There is no cure for AIDS. There are drugs that can slow down the HIV virus, and slow down the damage to your immune system. But there is no way to get all the HIV out of your body. There are other drugs that you can take to prevent or to treat opportunistic infections (OIs). In most cases, these drugs work very well. The newer, stronger anti-HIV drugs have also helped reduce the rates of most OIs. A few OIs, however, are still very difficult to treat.
*This content was originally published by CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information. http://catie.ca/en/basics