An estimated 1.1 million Americans have the HIV virus — and 1 in 5 of them don’t realize they have it. Here’s what you need to know.
You often hear Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in conjunction with one another. And while the two are related, they’re not the same thing. You can get HIV without getting AIDS, but you can’t get AIDS without having HIV.
What is HIV?
HIV is a virus that weakens and damages the immune system. And if left untreated, it can turn into AIDS – which quickens the deterioration of the immune system.
The cells that are affected by HIV are called CD4 cells, which are a type of T cell (immune cell). A healthy person has anywhere from 500 to 1,500 CD4 cells per cubic millimeter. When that count goes below 200, that person has AIDS — which is the advanced state of HIV.
A person with HIV who gets an opportunistic infection (one that preys on weak immune systems, like pneumonia) can also develop into AIDS, even if their CD4 count is above 200.
HIV is contracted through bodily fluids, such as blood, semen, vaginal and rectal fluids, and breast milk.
It cannot transmit through air, water or casual contact. It also cannot spread through:
- Skin-to-skin contact (hugging, shaking hands, kissing)
- Shared food or drink
- Shared toilet, towels or bedding
- Saliva, tears or sweat (unless mixed with HIV-positive blood)
Why should seniors be cautious?
The older we get, the weaker our immune systems become. Our T cells respond less quickly to antigens (toxins that induces production of antibodies). We have fewer white blood cells to respond to new antigens and our bodies have a harder time remembering and fighting them. We have less proteins to respond to bacterial infections. These are all normal parts of aging, but it doesn’t make it any less difficult to maintain severe diseases like HIV and AIDS.
3 Stages of HIV
The first stage of HIV is the acute stage and it lasts the first few weeks after contraction. Some people don’t experience symptoms in this stage, while others might feel like they have symptoms of the flu: sore throat, body aches, head ache, swollen lymph nodes, nausea.
Because of these familiar and seemingly non-threatening symptoms, many people choose not to see their medical provider. You won’t know you have HIV unless you get tested.
To get tested, contact your primary care provider’s office. HIV testing can be done in your doctor’s office with a sample of blood or saliva. Rapid test results can take minutes and routine testing can take a few days. Also, most pharmacies sell testing kits that can be used at home. If you have a positive test result it is important you contact your primary care provider for follow-up testing.
The second stage of HIV is the chronic stage, which happens about one month after stage 1. It can last from a few years to several decades with the proper treatment. Many people treat HIV with antiretroviral therapy, which helps protect CD4 cells and HIV from progressing.
As mentioned earlier, HIV can turn into AIDS if left untreated. And there is quite a range of symptoms one can experience with AIDS:
- Fever that comes and goes
- Swollen lymph glands
- Sores or lesions
- Chronic fatigue
- Recurring yeast infections
- Extreme weight loss
- Purple-colored growths in your mouth or on your skin
- Easy bruising
- Oral thrush (a painful thick, white coating on your tongue or mouth)
- Chronic pelvic inflammatory disease
- Bleeding from your mouth, nose, anus or vagina
- Recurring bad infections
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of muscle control
Unfortunately, there is no cure for HIV or AIDS. And the life expectancy of a person with AIDS is about three years.
Because of the social stigma associated with contracting HIV/AIDS, it’s not uncommon to be shy about seeing a medical provider. But it is really important to do so if you experience any of the flu-like symptoms that the beginning stages of HIV bring. It’s also important to get regular checkups that include blood work – as that is the quickest way to get tested.