What is HIV? Knowing is Half the Battle
What is HIV? Everyone is familiar with this abbreviation, but it actually stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. It’s also one of the most widely misunderstood.
Since this is such a common sexually transmitted infection, it is more important than ever before to recognize the signs and symptoms of HIV.
The Big Picture
That takes us back to our original question: what is HIV? Now that you know what HIV stands for, we can tell you more about what it actually is. HIV is a virus that works to weaken your immune system. It destroys important defensive cells that are designed to help you fight off other diseases or infections. It can be transmitted by intravenous drug use and through childbirth, but the most common way to become infected with HIV is through vaginal, anal or oral sex.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that there are over one million people living with HIV in the United States. During the early stages of HIV, your symptoms may seem similar to the flu. Ultimately, this virus can lead to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Contrary to popular belief, AIDS is not a separate virus. It’s actually a set of symptoms that make up the most severe phase of the HIV infection.
That common misconceptions related to “what is HIV” and “what is AIDS” is critical to understand. To help, let’s walk through the full lifecycle of the infection.
What is HIV?: The Acute Illness Phase
Typically, the first HIV symptoms may become visible within two-to-four weeks after the initial infection. That said, it is quite possible that you may not experience any signs or symptoms of HIV during this phase at all.
The most common symptoms of the acute phase may include:
- body rash
- sore throat
- severe headaches
- swollen lymph nodes
- ulcers in the mouth or on the genitals
- muscle aches and joint pain
- nausea and vomiting
- night sweats
As we briefly mentioned above, many of these symptoms can seem remarkably similar to the flu. Even worse, this first phase of HIV may not show any identifiable signs at all.
This can be problematic. Many infected people may honestly never realize that they have been infected. Still more troubling is the fact that this phase of HIV can potentially last for years.
What is HIV?: The Asymptomatic Period
The second phase of HIV infection is commonly called the Asymptomatic Period. Much like the name suggests, most people will not notice any symptoms during this next phase. Unfortunately, this phase can last a shockingly long time. In many cases, it can last for ten years or more. An individual who is HIV positive may go for years without seeing any visible signs and symptoms of HIV.
But just because you’re not seeing any symptoms, doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In fact, in this phase, HIV is still ravaging your body. You may not feel sick, but the infection is replicating inside of you. Your immune system is taking a major hit during the Asymptomatic Period.
What is HIV?: The Advanced Infection
Advanced Infection is the “final” stage of being HIV positive. If you haven’t been treated yet, your immune system has taken on a tremendous amount of damage. During this highly weakened state, your body will be far more susceptible to other illnesses. This stage is often referred to as AIDS.
During the Advanced Infection stage, you might experience the following AIDS symptoms:
- rapid weight loss
- shortness of breath
- night sweats
- rashes, sores, or lesions
- swelling of the lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, or neck
- memory loss, confusion, or neurological disorders
Be Prepared… with PrEP!
Now that you understand the difference of what is HIV versus what is “the flu,” let’s talk about how you can protect yourself from it. Obviously condoms will always be an excellent first line of defense.
Today, we have a new preventative measure to fight back against HIV. PrEP is a pill that is changing the way that HIV negative people prevent themselves from getting the infection.
PrEP is short for “pre-exposure prophylaxis.”
- Pre – acting before an infection occurs
- Exposure – when you first come into contact with HIV
- Prophylaxis – a treatment that prevents an infection from taking root
Much like birth control pills, it is best to take PrEP at the same time every day. It works by blocking a specific enzyme known as “HIV reverse transcriptase.” When someone is exposed to HIV, PrEP works to prevent the virus from establishing a permanent foothold in the body.
Often, people who are considered “at risk” for being exposed to HIV, like partners of HIV positive people, take this medication as a way of preventing them from contracting the infection. Those individuals who believe they are at risk for exposure to HIV should see a medical professional about beginning PrEP treatment.
Taking Total Control of Your Sexual Health
In addition to safe sex and PreP, routinely scheduled HIV testing is the key to total sexual health. PrEP is a powerful prevention tool, but testing is the only way you can be absolutely sure of your status. You can order a quick-and-easy at-home HIV testing package from myLAB Box. These tests offer lab-certified results that can be checked discreetly online. Our recent “Guide to HIV Testing” blog post is an excellent starting point.
Using a combination of at-home STD testing kits, condoms and PrEP preventative medication, we are looking at a very bright sexual future.