Definition and Overview

HIV, which stands for human immunodeficiency virus, is a specific type of virus that causes the serious illness more commonly known as AIDS. The virus is particularly life threatening because it targets the body’s immune system and compromises the body’s ability to fight infections and diseases.

Thus, a person who contracts the human immunodeficiency virus has a high chance of developing certain infections and cancers. If the patients’ CD4 or T-cell count dropped to less than 200, they are considered to have AIDS.

Causes

An HIV infection is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, which works by destroying the CD4 cells in the body. CD4 cells are white blood cells that play an important role in fighting infections and diseases that threaten the body.

This virus spreads through the blood, semen, or vaginal fluids. Risk factors include the following:

  • Engaging in unprotected sexual contact with an infected person
  • Engaging in sexual contact with several different partners
  • Having sexual intercourse with sex workers or drug users
  • Using the same needle during injections, usually for drugs
  • Using non-sterile needles for piercing or tattooing
  • Having other sexually transmitted diseases such as herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, or chlamydia
  • Receiving blood transfusion before the year 1985, after which all donated blood are carefully tested for HIV

HIV can also be passed from mother to fetus during pregnancy.

Stages and Symptoms

HIV or AIDS develops in stages. Each stage bears different symptoms.

First stage: Acute infection or seroconversion

There is a two to six week window following the exposure to the human immunodeficiency virus within which the person can become infected. During this stage, the body tries to fight the virus, thus causing initial symptoms that are often likened to flu symptoms. This stage usually lasts a week or two and is followed by a non-symptomatic stage.

Symptoms during this stage include:

Second stage: Asymptomatic stage

Once the initial symptoms have passed, this means the second stage has elapsed. The infection now takes hold of the body as the immune system completely loses the battle. This is often a long period, sometimes lasting for ten years or even longer, during which the patient may feel no symptoms at all. Inside the body, however, the virus is gradually destroying the CD4 T-cells, which should normally be between 450 and 1400 cells for every microliter. This is also the stage where many infected individuals may unknowingly pass the virus on to others.

Third stage: AIDS

The third stage is widely known as AIDS, which is the advanced stage of the infection. The defining factor of this stage is when the CD4 T-cells drop to below 200 per microliter.

A wide range of more serious symptoms may now arise during this stage. These include:

  • Unexplained chronic tiredness
  • Swollen lymph nodes in groin or neck
  • Fever that does not go away after ten days
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Shortness of breath
  • Severe or chronic diarrhea
  • Night sweats
  • Yeast infections (more commonly in the throat, mouth, or vagina)
  • Unexplained bleeding
  • Easy bruising
  • Purplish spots that do not disappear over time

Who to See

If you experience any of the first and third stage symptoms, see your doctor immediately. Not all doctors are experienced or trained in treating HIV or AIDS, but your general physician can diagnose the disease and rule out other illnesses.

Your physician may use different tests to diagnose HIV/AIDS, which typically include the following:

  • Antibody screening test or immunoassay (detects the infection within three to six months after exposure)
  • Antigen test (may test positive as early as three weeks after exposure)
  • RNA test (a highly expensive test that detects the disease around 10 days following exposure)

Types of Treatments Available

The main treatment for HIV infected individuals involves a ‘cocktail’ or combination of different medications called antiretroviral drugs, all of which work together to rebuild the immune system. Although this treatment does not remove the virus, it counteracts the virus’ negative effects.

Thus, it is critical that an HIV patient does not stop taking all the medications and that at least three or more of the prescribed drugs are taken together. Mixing different drugs has been proven to be more effective because the chances of the virus’ developing resistance to treatment become lower.

Once the CD4 T-cells count begins to increase, patients can also be given drugs to prevent specific types of infections.

With the proper treatment plan, many people infected with HIV now live long normal lives, with a doctor working continuously with them for long-term management of the disease.

Although there is no specialty in the medical profession that focuses on HIV/AIDS treatment, there is a worldwide initiative that helps patients get the treatment and assistance they need as they live and cope with the disease.

When Should You See A Specialist?

If you suspect that you have come in contact with an infected person, see your doctor immediately. When it is caught in the earliest stage or right after the initial infection, there is now a way for doctors to prevent HIV from settling into the system. This method, which uses anti-HIV drugs, is often used by people, such as health care workers and those in the police force, who could be exposed to blood that may have HIV.

If you notice any of the third stage symptoms, see your doctor immediately so that you may be given proper treatment. If tested positive, you may be referred to a doctor who can work with you full-time in managing your disease. Patients in the third stage may also be referred to HIV/AIDS organizations that provide not just medical but also psychological and emotional support for those suffering from the disease.

References:

  • Osmond DH PhD. “Epidemiology of HIV in the United States.”
  • Hare CH. “Clinical Overview of HIV Disease.”
  • Crothers K; Huang L. “Critical Care of Patients with HIV.”
  • Donegan, E. MD. “Transmission of HIV by Blood, Blood Products, Tissue Transplantation, and Artificial Insemination.”
  • Hughes AM; Jones DJ. “Inpatient Management of the Adult with Advanced HIV Disease.”
  • Ludwig A; Chittenden E. “Palliative Care of Patients with HIV.”
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