HIV & AIDS: DEBUNKING THE MYTHS
Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a collection of symptoms caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and it develops when the HIV virus is very advanced or left untreated. Myths and misinformation abound regarding HIV and AIDS, so it is essential that we first understand the difference (and also the connection) between the two terms. The doctors here at London Doctors Clinic start by clearing this up:
What is HIV?
HIV is a virus that attacks the body's immune system, which is the system that defends us against illness. The virus specifically attacks a type of white blood cell called a T Helper Cell (CD4 cells), and once the virus enters the cells it makes copies of itself inside the cell. Over time, untreated HIV can destroy so many of these vital cells that the body cannot fight off infections and diseases as well as it could do in a healthy state.
Types of HIV
There are many types, but two main strains (types) of HIV:
HIV - 1: the main type found worldwide
HIV - 2: found mainly in West Africa, and to a lesser degree in India and Europe
What is AIDS?
When HIV is left untreated, AIDS develops. This may take 10 - 15 years, and signals that HIV has severely damaged the immune system. Not everyone who has HIV will develop AIDS, but AIDS is usually the last stage of the HIV infection, and allows opportunistic infections or cancers take advantage of a very weak immune system, making the infected person very ill.
Myths About HIV/AIDS:
Earlier in this article we mentioned that there are lots of myths about how a person becomes infected with HIV. It is crucial that we tackle these myths to understand the truth about how HIV is really passed on.
HIV lives in many of the bodily fluids of the infected person, and it is passed on if these infected body fluids (such as blood, semen, vaginal or anal secretions and breast milk) get into the bloodstream of a non-infected person.
The four main ways that HIV can be passed on are:
• Unprotected sex (rates of transmission are highest in heterosexual couples)
• Injecting drugs with a used needle that has blood from an infected person on it
• Needle stick injuries sustained by healthcare workers
You cannot get HIV/AIDs from:
• Someone who doesn't have HIV
• Touching the skin of someone who has HIV
• Sweat, tears, urine or faeces of someone who has HIV
• Sharing utensils, communal areas (e.g toilet seats), or public spaces (e.g playgrounds) with someone who has HIV
• AIDS can't live in water, and it is not transmitted in air if an infected person sneezes or coughs
If you or your sexual partner has been diagnosed with HIV or AIDs, the risk of transmitting the disease through kissing or oral sex is extremely low, although you should always exercise caution if the person has open sores on the genitals or bleeding gums/sores in the mouth (more on that later)!
Symptoms of HIV/AIDS:
The symptoms of HIV/AIDS vary, depending on the phase of the infection.
Primary HIV infection:
When the virus first enters the body, the infected person may feel fine for a few weeks. The majority of people will develop a flu-like illness within a month or two following the entry of the virus into the body. This stage of the illness is known as primary (or acute) HIV, and may last for several weeks.
Look out for:
• Muscle aches or joint pain
• Skin rash
• Sore throat
• Swollen lymph nodes, especially in the neck
Clinical Latent Infection (Chronic HIV):
• Often, there are no specific signs and symptoms
• Some people will notice persistent swelling of lymph nodes
Early Symptomatic HIV infection:
As the HIV virus continues to multiple and destroy white blood cells, some infections or chronic signs and symptoms may develop, such as:
• Swollen Lymph nodes
• Weight loss
• Oral thrush
HIV Progression to AIDs:
If you do not receive treatment for your HIV infection, the progression to full blown AIDS takes about ten years, and by this time your immunity (ability to defend against diseases) is low.
The signs and symptoms of some of these infections may include:
• Soaking night sweats
• Recurring fever
• Chronic diarrhoea
• Persistent white spots or unusual lesions on your tongue or in your mouth
• Persistent, unexplained fatigue
• Weight loss
• Skin rashes or bumps
AIDS is diagnosed when the level of your T Helper (CD4) cells falls below a certain level in the blood, or when you suffer from two or more AIDS defining conditions, such as:
• Candidiasis (thrush)
• Cervical Cancer
How Can I Lower My Risk of Getting HIV/AIDS?
There is lots of advice available regarding how you can reduce your risk of contracting HIV, but here are some useful tips to get you started:
• Limit your number of sexual partners, know your and your partners HIV status, and use condoms every time you have sex
• Get tested and treated for STD’s promptly
• Do not inject drugs, but if you do, never share needles with anyone else
• Use pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – this is a HIV prevention option for people who don’t have HIV but who are at high risk of becoming infected with HIV. PrEP involves taking a specific HIV medicine every day, combined with other prevention options, such as condoms
Diagnosis/Treatment of HIV/AIDS:
If you think you might even been infected with HIV or are at risk of contracting the virus, even if you believe the risk is very small, you must see a Doctor as soon as possible. Your GP can perform a test for the HIV virus in your blood, which can usually pick up the presence of the virus within a few weeks of infection, but this can occasionally take longer and a test after three months is recommended to totally exclude HIV infection.
If you are diagnosed with HIV, you will be referred to an HIV clinic for monitoring and treatment. You will also be offered counselling.
The medicine used to treat HIV is called antiretroviral therapy or ART. If taken the right way, every day, this medicine can dramatically prolong the lives of many people with HIV, keep them healthy, and greatly lower their chance of transmitting the virus to others.
There is currently no cure for HIV/AIDS, but with the right treatment and support, people can live long, healthy and fulfilled lives. Today, a person who is diagnosed with HIV, and treated before the disease is far advanced, can live almost as long as someone who does not have HIV, as long as they stay on treatment. If you're worried about anything you have read in today's blog post, why not book in for an HIV test at LDC - we have eight private clinics across central London and same day doctor appointments, so we should always be close by if you're in search of a or doctor near me.