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AIDS & HIV: Treatment & Prevention

While 1.1 million Americans currently live with HIV/AIDS, the incurable virus is no longer a quick death sentence and has become a chronic, manageable condition.

First reported in the United States in 1981, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) destroys the body’s ability to fight infections and other life-threatening illnesses, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The virus that causes AIDS is called HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

an image of HIV Virus
Here a 3D look at the HIV virus.
Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki | Shutterstock

Symptoms & Complications

When a person is first exposed to HIV, they may show no symptoms for several months or longer. Typically, however, they experience a flu-like illness that includes fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle aches and enlarged lymph nodes in the neck and groin areas.

This early illness is often followed by a “latency” phase where the virus is less active and no symptoms are present, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This latent period can last up to a decade or more.

As HIV progresses into full-blown AIDS, it severely damages the immune system, causing a wide variety of symptoms such as:

  • Rapid weight loss or “wasting”
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Recurring fevers and night sweats
  • Prolonged gland swelling
  • Prolonged diarrhea
  • Sores in the mouth, genitals or anus
  • Pneumonia
  • Skin blotches
  • Depression, memory loss and other neurological effects

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), untreated HIV is also linked to serious conditions such as cancer, liver disease, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease. 

 

Diagnosis & Tests

Since HIV/AIDS can set off so many other illnesses, it may be difficult initially to pinpoint the source. Typically, however, these illnesses appear in clusters over a short period of time, cluing patients and doctors into the presence of the virus.

According to NIAID, two types of blood tests can confirm HIV/AIDS infection:

  • ELISA, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, which detects disease-fighting proteins called antibodies that are specific to HIV; and
  • Western blot, which detects antibodies that bind to specific HIV proteins

After someone is first infected it may take weeks or months for the immune system to produce enough detectable antibodies in an HIV blood test. Ironically, an infected person’s viral load may be very high during this time, making the infection exceptionally contagious.

Because of this, the CDC recommends routine HIV testing for all adolescents, adults and pregnant women, and advises that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 should be tested at least once.

Conventional HIV/AIDS tests are sent to a laboratory for analysis and may take a week or more for results. A rapid HIV test is also available that offers results in about 20 minutes, but positive results from either type of test are confirmed with a second test.

Treatments & Medications

While AIDS remains incurable, patients are living much longer – even decades after infection – because of the development of many effective medications to suppress the virus. The most effective type are known as antiretroviral drugs, which are often taken in combination to prevent the patient from becoming resistant to any one drug.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the most common antiretroviral drugs fall into three categories:

  • Reverse transcriptase inhibitors, which keep the virus from reproducing
  • Protease inhibitors, which interfere with an HIV protein that produces infectious particles
  • Fusion inhibitors, which prevent the virus from entering healthy cells

Doctors verify if medications are working through blood tests, which measure levels of various infection-fighting blood cells as well as the level of HIV in the blood. Even when the virus is undetectable, AIDS is not cured and can still be transmitted to others.

Other HIV/AIDS treatment focuses around living a healthy lifestyle with optimum nutrition, sleep and exercise. Regular doctor’s visits are also scheduled, with frequency depending on viral levels in the blood and what symptoms are present, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Prevention

More than 56,000 Americans become infected with HIV each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. While some AIDS patients have been infected through blood transfusions during medical procedures, preventing infection usually depends on avoiding risky habits or behaviors that lead to exposure to the virus, which can be transmitted through blood, bodily fluids such as semen and infected needles.

Prevention measures include:

  • Knowing yours and your partners’ HIV status
  • Using latex condoms correctly during every sexual encounter, whether gay or straight
  • Limiting the number of sexual partners
  • Abstaining from injectable drug use
  • Seeking medical treatment immediately after suspected HIV exposure, since medications can sometimes prevent infection if started early

It’s just as important to know the ways HIV cannot be spread, such as by:

  • Saliva, tears or sweat
  • Water or air
  • Casual contact such as closed-mouth kissing or shaking hands
  • Insects, including mosquitoes

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