What is hiv?

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): Overview

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks your immune system. This makes it hard for your body to fight infection and disease. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). But having HIV doesn't mean that you have AIDS. AIDS is the last stage of HIV infection, and with treatment, you can avoid it.

Medicines called antiretrovirals are the main treatment for HIV. By fighting the virus, these medicines can help your immune system stay healthy and can prevent AIDS. And they can help you live about as long as someone without HIV.

HIV often causes flu-like symptoms soon after a person gets infected. These early symptoms go away in a few weeks. After that, you may not have signs of illness for many years.

But the virus is still in your body. If you don't get treated, symptoms come back and then remain. Common symptoms include fatigue, weight loss, fever, night sweats, diarrhea, swollen lymph nodes, and mouth sores. If HIV progresses to AIDS, your symptoms get worse and your body is less and less able to fight infections like pneumonia and tuberculosis.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system, the body's natural defense system. Without a strong immune system, the body has trouble fighting off disease.

HIV infection is treated with medicines that slow or stop the damage to the immune system. If it's not treated, in time HIV will cause AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

What happens when you have HIV?

After the early symptoms of HIV go away, you may have no symptoms for years. But then symptoms return. As HIV destroys certain white blood cells, your body can't defend itself against infections. AIDS is the last stage of HIV infection. Treatment can prevent AIDS and help you live about as long as someone without HIV.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

HIV may not cause symptoms early on. People who do have symptoms may mistake them for the flu or mono. The symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Muscle aches.
  • Skin rash.
  • Headache.
  • Sore throat.
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and groin.
  • Joint pain.
  • Night sweats.
  • Diarrhea.

These first symptoms can range from mild to severe. They usually go away on their own after 2 to 3 weeks. But many people don't have symptoms, or they have such mild symptoms that they don't notice them at this stage.

Later symptoms

After the early symptoms go away, a person who has HIV may not have symptoms again for years. But if HIV isn't treated, symptoms will come back, be more severe, and remain. These symptoms usually include:

  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Night sweats.
  • Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss.
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and groin.
  • Diarrhea or other bowel changes.
  • Dry cough or shortness of breath.
  • Nail changes.
  • Pain when swallowing.
  • Repeated outbreaks of cold sores or genital herpes sores.
  • Mouth sores or a yeast infection of the mouth (thrush).

How is HIV treated?

HIV is treated with a mix of medicines called antiretroviral therapy (ART). Often the medicines are combined into a single pill. ART can reduce the amount of virus in your body. Taking the medicine can prevent AIDS and help you stay healthy.

Preventing the spread of HIV

If you have HIV, you can take steps to avoid spreading the infection to others.

  • Take antiretroviral medicines.

    Getting treated for HIV can help you stay healthy. It also helps protect other people from getting infected.

  • Let your sex and injection partners know that you have HIV.

    Encourage any partners to get medicine to prevent HIV. This is called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). PrEP can help keep them from getting HIV.

  • Have safer sex.

    Using a condom can help prevent the spread of HIV. So can having one sex partner and choosing activities that have a lower risk than vaginal or anal sex.

  • Never share needles, syringes, or other injection supplies.

    Use new, clean supplies every time.

  • Talk to any partners about PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis).

    This medicine can help prevent HIV if it's taken within 3 days of exposure to HIV.

  • Do not donate blood, plasma, sperm, body organs, or body tissues.

    HIV can spread through these things.

How is HIV diagnosed?

HIV is usually diagnosed with a blood test. Some tests use saliva or urine.

An HIV test checks for HIV antibodies or antigens. If HIV antibodies or antigens are found, the test is considered positive. If the test is positive, another test, such as a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, may be done to be sure. Sometimes a PCR test is done at the same time as the first test.

Even if HIV antibodies or antigens aren't found, you may need to be tested again, especially if you think you have been recently exposed. This is done to make sure that HIV antibodies or antigens don't appear at a later time.

How can you care for yourself when you have HIV?

You can take steps to help keep your immune system strong and to stay healthy. For example, take your HIV medicine exactly as directed. Eat healthy foods. Learn how to avoid food poisoning. Get regular exercise to help reduce stress and help you feel less tired. Stay up to date on all vaccines.

What increases your risk of HIV?

You're at greater risk of getting infected with HIV if you:

  • Are a man who has sex with other men.
  • Have unprotected sex with more than one partner.
  • Inject drugs or steroids, especially if you share needles, syringes, cookers, or other supplies used to inject drugs.
  • Have unprotected sex with a high-risk partner. This means any partner who has multiple sex partners or who injects drugs, or who is a man who has sex with other men.
  • Have or recently had a sexually transmitted infection (STI), such as syphilis or genital herpes.

Being born to someone who has HIV increases the risk of infection. But with treatment, the risk is very low.

Counseling for people who have HIV: Overview

Living with a chronic illness like HIV can affect your mental health. Having HIV can be stressful and isolating. Depression is common in people who have HIV. Some medicines for HIV increase the risk of depression. And having a mental health condition or substance use disorder may make it hard to take your medicine every day as directed, which is important for your long-term health.

Counseling can help you feel better. Working with a counselor, you can learn ways to cope with stress and stigma. It may help you improve relationships with loved ones. If you have a mental health condition or substance use disorder, counseling may help you stick with your treatment. Your doctor can connect you with a counselor.

How is HIV spread?

People can get HIV when they come in contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluid. This usually happens through:

  • Sexual contact. The virus may get in through the lining of the rectum, vagina, urethra, or mouth. Most cases of HIV are spread this way.
  • Infected blood. HIV can be spread when a person:
    • Shares needles, syringes, or other tools used to inject drugs or steroids.
    • Is poked with a needle or other sharp item that has infected blood on it.

If you have HIV, you can spread it to your baby during pregnancy, during birth, or when breastfeeding.

A lot of people who have HIV don't realize that they're infected, so they can spread it without knowing it.

What causes HIV?

HIV infection is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus. People can get HIV when they come in contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluids. This is usually through sexual contact or sharing needles. If you have HIV while you're pregnant, the virus can be passed to your baby during birth.

What is human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)?

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the immune system. Without a strong immune system, the body has trouble fighting off disease. Even if you don't have symptoms, the virus is still in your body. Treatment can help prevent HIV infection from getting worse and becoming acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Preventing infections when you have HIV

In most cases, HIV causes only a few weeks of flu-like symptoms. But if HIV isn't treated, you're more likely to get sick with opportunistic infections. HIV weakens your immune system so it can't fight off these infections. Preventing opportunistic infections is an important part of caring for yourself when you have HIV.

  • Take your HIV medicines as directed.

    This helps your immune system stay strong so it can fight off other infections.

  • Have safer sex.

    Use a condom every time you have sex. This helps prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

  • If you inject drugs, use new, clean syringes and needles every time.

    Don't share injection supplies with others.

  • Stay up to date on all vaccines.

    This includes vaccines for the flu and COVID-19. Your doctor can tell you which other vaccines you need.

  • If your doctor prescribed medicines to prevent opportunistic infections, take them as directed.

    Talk to your doctor if you have problems such as missing doses or having side effects.

  • Take steps to avoid food poisoning.

    Having HIV puts you at a higher risk for food-borne diseases, so learn how to prepare and store food safely. For example, wash your hands before and after handling food. Don't eat raw eggs, meats, or seafood (including sushi). Wash fresh fruits and vegetables well.

HIV medicine management: When to call

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems with your medicine.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.