HIV and AIDS Aren’t Interchangeable

HIV-AIDS-not-the-sameHIV and AIDS continue to plague this country, especially in the Black community. Thanks to many private organizations and the government a lot more is known about HIV. However, there is still some confusion on what HIV and AIDS are and the difference between the two. It’s often used interchangeably but HIV and AIDS, though related, are two different things. Let’s take some time to understand them and the myths.

Understanding HIV

HIV is human immunodeficiency virus. Unlike many viruses the human body can’t get rid of this particular virus. A virus is a small infectious agent that replicates itself inside the cells of a living organism. It can infect any type of organism – humans, plants, animals, etc. A virus can be spread in various ways between people – in fluids, through the air, and physical contact. It takes over the living organism by multiplying itself by binding to a cell in the organism and using the reproductive properties of the cell to copy itself. Simply put it tricks a cell, such as one from a human, to make copies of the virus instead of copies of the original cell. Those replicated virus cells bind to new uninfected cells and continues to multiply. The virus we are most familiar with is the Rhino Virus also known as the common cold. Unlike HIV, eventually we recover from a cold on our own. Polio and measles are also viruses you may be familiar with. We can be vaccinated against many viruses, except the common cold unfortunately. A viral infection is different from a bacterial infection in that bacteria is a single-celled organism that multiples on its own. It doesn’t require a host like a virus does. Antibiotics are used to fight bacteria while it’s more difficult to fight a virus since it invades a cell and essentially reprograms it.

HIV acts as many viruses do. It is only spread through contact with bodily blood products such as blood or semen. It isn’t airborne like the flu or anthrax. It can’t be transmitted through saliva like hepatitis B, nor is it transmitted from physical contact with another person’s unbroken skin or belongings. Cells have receptors that act like key holes. HIV has protein “arms” along the surface that act as the key. When HIV enters the body it is specifically looking for T-helper cells (CD-4) that are critical to the functioning of the body’s overall immune system. The T-helper cells are being converted into HIV cells. This is why doctors test someone’s T-cell count to understand their level of infection. Once HIV is in the body, according to scientists, it can’t be fully eradicated at this time. Tests can be performed to check for HIV, this is commonly referred to as “knowing your status”. Basically whether you are positive or negative.

The incubation period of a virus is how long it will remain dormant in the body before it starts to replicate. This can last from a few days to a few years. The generally accepted incubation period for HIV is from two weeks to six months before the body starts to produce antibodies. Antibodies are proteins produced by the body when fighting an infection. When infected with HIV the body produces a specific type of antibody in an attempt to fight off the infection. The HIV test is looking for these antibodies in the blood and saliva. Once the antibodies reach a certain level they can be detected by a test.

HIV falls under the category of sexually transmitted diseases, STD, but unlike most of the others it can become much more deadly. Watch this animation to understand how HIV invades and takes over the body.

Understanding AIDS

When HIV/AIDS became widely known the progression from HIV infection to full blown AIDS was so fast that there seemed to be almost no distinction between the two. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. As medical science around HIV has progressed doctors have been able to lengthen the lives of those infected with HIV thus preventing progression to AIDS.  A person is considered to have AIDS when they suffer from opportunistic infections brought about by the weakening of their immune system due to the HIV virus. These infectious are opportunistic because they would not normally effect a person who doesn’t have HIV. We are bombarded with viral agents all of the time that through our constant exposure we are immune. That natural immunity is broken down as HIV replaces T-cells. Once a person has a T-cell (also known as CD-4 cell) count of less than 200 they are considered to have AIDS or stage three of HIV infection. A healthy person has an average count of 500-1200. This is measured in micrograms per millimeter of blood. Once a person reaches this stage their life expectancy is three years without treatment.

The time between HIV infection to AIDS can be lengthened by retroviral therapy, staying in HIV care, and staying healthy. Conversely it can be shortened by older age, type of HIV, poor nutrition, stress, and co-infections.

Learn more about the transition from HIV to AIDS here.

Symptoms of HIV Infection and Getting Tested

In the beginning HIV can have virtually no symptoms as the virus replicates. If someone does develop symptoms they aren’t unlike that of other viral infections. Symptoms can include but are not limited to:

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • achy muscles and joint pain
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • skin rash
  • nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • weight loss
  • dry cough
  • pneumonia
  • night sweats
  • yeast infections

Unfortunately these symptoms can be indicative of less serious illnesses as well. Those who have gone undiagnosed with HIV were discovered to have AIDS when they developed flu-like symptoms that only worsened with time. If you have these symptoms for a prolonged period of time without improvement and you have engaged in high-risk behaviors or activities it may be worth getting tested. In fact, it’s a good idea to be tested regularly if you are sexually active (homosexual and heterosexual), have unprotected sex or engage in recreational IV drug use. These have the highest rates of transmission. Testing can be done at a clinic anonymously or at home using a kit. If you have health insurance, the test is covered as preventative care if done as part of an annual exam such as a pap smear, along with a general STD screen.

Early diagnosis is critical to slowing the progression of HIV infection to stage three AIDS. Visit the CDC to learn more about testing.

Treatment of HIV and AIDS

When someone is diagnosed with HIV they are typically put on a cocktail of prescription drugs. There is debate on whether or not a cure exists for HIV. The notion that a cure exists is partially driven by the fact that famed basketball player Earvin “Magic” Johnson has lived with HIV over 2o years and hasn’t progressed to AIDS status. However, the life expectancy of people with HIV varies and is highly dependent on their general health and access to medication. Many have survived as long if not longer. We must consider that Magic Johnson has thrived for so long simply because his wealth affords him access to care and resources that the majority of those effected by HIV don’t have.

Antiretroviral therapy is the main treatment for HIV infection. These work by slowing the replication process of HIV and preventing the weakening of the immune system. Inhibitors are also used to prevent HIV from binding with the T-Cell in the first place. Treatment is complex and varied. It strongly depends on the strain of HIV contracted and the genetic background of the person.

Once stage three or AIDS has been reached treatment options begin to decline. The opportunistic infections take hold at this point. There is no cure for AIDS. Treatment then becomes about combating these opportunistic infections while attempting to increase immune response. It’s very difficult to get the immune system to rally once below a T-cell count of 200. Learn more about the various treatment options here.

Preventing HIV Infection

The good news is that HIV infection is highly preventable:

  • Use protection such as condoms for vaginal and anal sex and dental dams when engaging in oral sex
  • Limit sexual partners
  • Stop IV drug use or at the very least don’t reuse or share needles

While scientists are quite ready to call game time on a vaccine for the general population there is pre-exposure prophylaxis, PrEP. This is an option for people who are at high risk of contracting HIV. It is a pill taken every day. Studies suggest that it can be effective in the vagina after about 20 days and in the anus after about 7 days. The pill must be continually taken and can’t be stopped once started. It is by prescription only and may even be covered by health insurance. Consult a physician for more information and to find out if it would be an option for you. That is the only way to best evaluate PrEP. This is not a vaccine, once the pill is stopped the potential protection against HIV goes away. A vaccine remains in the body for years such as the measles or polio vaccinations and may require booster shots for full potency. If someone is exposed to the blood of an HIV infected person they can take a cocktail of drugs to prevent HIV from beginning to replicate. This is called prophylactic treatment or prevention of the disease. This treatment must be administered within 72 hours of exposure.

There is no way to cure AIDS, rather an HIV positive person is trying to lengthen the time between infection to progression to stage three. Many more people are living with HIV than at any time in history. Treatment options are making it possible for many people to live decades without developing AIDS. The best way to prevent AIDS is to not get HIV in the first place.

Myths About HIV/AIDS

Even though we know more about HIV/AIDS than we did in 80’s there are still myths and beliefs out there that are making it more difficult to fight this disease:

  • You can’t contract HIV by simply hanging around people infected with HIV. You must come in contact with specific fluids (blood or semen), saliva isn’t one of them.
  • Even with the advancement of treatment and preventative drugs, you still must protect yourself from coming in contact with HIV and contracting the virus.
  • You can’t contract HIV from mosquitoes, there have been no recorded cases of HIV being passed through mosquito bites.
  • HIV is not a death sentence if caught early and all treatment plans are adhered to.
  • HIV/AIDS is not just a disease that impacts homosexuals and IV drug users, anyone can get it.
  • Even if you and your partner are both HIV positive you should use protection. There are different strains of HIV. It is possible to become infected with a new strain further compromising your health.
  • You can’t tell if someone is HIV positive.
  • While it’s harder to transmit HIV through oral sex it is still possible and preventative precautions should be taken.
  • If you are HIV positive but your antibody count is undetectable it is still possible to pass HIV to your sexual partner, you must still use protection.
  • Getting an HIV test is not an admission of homosexuality, drug use or other high-risk behaviors. It should be standard for any sexually active person.

Black women are still disproportionately impacted by new HIV infections. The hardest hit are Black and White men who engage in sex with other men especially between the ages of 13-24. Even though medical science has made great strides in the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS every precaution must still be taken to avoid contracting this life-threatening disease. Share this post within your community and comment below.


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