HIV/AIDS Facts

What is HIV and AIDS?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is a virus that takes over certain immune system cells to make many copies of itself. HIV causes slow but constant damage to the immune system.

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is the condition diagnosed when there are a group of related symptoms that are caused by severe HIV infection. AIDS makes the body vulnerable to life-threatening illnesses called opportunistic infections.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is transmitted through four body fluids: blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk. In order to pass HIV from one person to another, HIV-infected fluid from one person needs to get into the bloodstream of another person. HIV is usually transmitted through sharing needles, unprotected anal, vaginal, and sometimes oral sex, and from mother to infant before or during delivery and while breast feeding.

You can’t get HIV from:

Coughing, sneezing, sharing household items, swimming in the same pool as someone with HIV, mosquito bites, toilet seats, telephones, sweat, saliva, or tears.

How can I prevent myself from contracting HIV?

Becoming educated about HIV and understanding how it is transmitted is the first, and perhaps most important way to prevent the spread of HIV. It is essential for people to make informed decisions about the level of risk they are willing to take, based on what is realistic for them. Abstaining from sex and needle sharing is the most effective way for people to protect themselves from HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases. However, abstinence is not a realistic option for everyone.

What should I know about HIV testing?

When thinking of getting tested for HIV, there are a few important things to consider:

  • Window Period: When having a HIV antibody test, there must be at least three months time between the time a person was last at risk for contracting HIV and the time that he/she gets a test done. Some people call this the “window period”. The HIV test is looking for antibodies, which arethe body’s response to having HIV in it. For most people, it takes three months for the body to produce enough antibodies for a standard HIV antibody test to be accurate.
  • Anonymous vs. Confidential Tests: An anonymous test does not require an individual to provide their name at the time of testing, while a confidential test does require a name. In either case, written consent from the patient is the only way the results will be released, and otherwise will be kept private. Doctors’ offices use confidential testing while the Pima County Health Department offers both confidential and anonymous testing.
  • Standard vs. Rapid Testing: A standard HIV test refers to a blood draw, typically done at adoctor’s office. Results are usually received within 5 to 10 business days. Rapid tests (sometimes referred to as OraQuick, Unigold or Clearview) involve either a finger   prick or a mouth swab. Results are given in about 10 minutes.
  • Cost: Depending on where you get tested, either insurance will cover the cost, pricing may be based on a sliding-scale which will depend on your income, or you may be able to get a free test.

Are the HIV tests accurate?

Yes. HIV tests detect specific antibodies your body produces if exposed to HIV. These tests are more than 99% accurate and confirmation tests are conducted to determine a positive result. HIV tests are available that use a small blood sample or saliva.

Is there a vaccine or cure for HIV?

No. There is no vaccine or cure. Scientists around the world have been working on vaccines and cures for several decades now, but the outlook for a cure or vaccination is still years away.

What if I test positive for HIV?

Although HIV can’t be cured, it can be managed. This means the virus can be kept from rapidly replicating in the body so that it doesn’t damage the immune system quickly. The first step you should take is to see a doctor, even if you do not feel sick. Try to find a doctor who has experience treating HIV. There are now many drugs to treat HIV infection and help you maintain your health. These drugs are called anti-retrovirals. A combination of these drugs is referred to as Combination Therapy or HAART (Highly Active Anti-Retrovirals Therapy). Many people also take prophylactic medications to prevent pneumonia.

You should also try to stop smoking cigarettes, drinking too much alcohol, and using illegal drugs (such as cocaine). All of these can weaken your immune system.

How is AIDS diagnosed?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) definition of AIDS, initially published in 1986 and revised in 1993, is based on certain clinical conditions, infections, and malignancies associated with HIV infection (called “opportunistic” infections to indicate that they arise in the setting of immune impairment). Additionally, AIDS may be defined by a T cell (CD4) count of less than 200, even in the absence of an opportunistic infection. People living with HIV who progress to having an AIDS diagnosis can continue living well and healthy by changing unhealthy behaviors and going on HIV antiretroviral treatment.

What is HIV antiretroviral treatment?

This is the main type of treatment for HIV or AIDS. It is not a cure, but it can stop people from becoming ill for many years. The treatment consists of drugs that have to be taken every day for the rest of someone’s life. To understand more about treatment you need to have some basic knowledge of HIV and AIDS. Antiretroviral treatment for HIV infection consists of drugs which work against HIV infection itself by slowing down the replication of HIV in the body. Currently there are over 25 HIV medications available to treat HIV infection. HIV medications fall into several groups, or “classes.” Each class attacks HIV a little differently, and has diverse risks and benefits. To maximize the impact against HIV, a treatment regimen is made up of drugs from different classes.

There are four classes of anti-HIV drugs. Each of these groups attacks HIV in a different way.

  • Nucleoside/Nucleotide Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors
  • Non-Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors
  • Protease Inhibitors
  • Fusion or Entry Inhibitors

For antiretroviral treatment to be effective for a long time, it has been found that you need to take more than one antiretroviral drug at a time. This is what is known as Combination Therapy. The term Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) is used to describe a combination of three or more anti-HIV drugs.

When HIV replicates (makes new copies of itself) it often makes mistakes. This means that within any infected person there are many different strains of virus. Occasionally, a new strain is produced that happens to be resistant to the effects of the medications. If the person is not taking any other type of drug then the resistant strain is able to replicate quickly and the benefits of treatment are lost.

The medications often cause side effects that can range from mild to severe in some cases.

Please be sure to consult your doctor about potential side effects and/or if side effects last long or are severe.

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The mission of the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation is to cultivate a healthy and stigma-free society through transformative action.