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The STD That Kills: Human Immunodeficiency Virus

The STD That Kills:
Human Immunodeficiency Virus

What is HIV?
How do you get HIV?
Who is most likely to get HIV?
How can you prevent HIV?
What are the symptoms of HIV?
How do I know if I have HIV?
Where should I go to get tested?
How can I get rid of HIV?
How is HIV treated?

What is HIV?
Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes a disease of the immune system. The virus attacks the immune system and weakens it so much that it can't defend the body against infections. HIV disease is usually mild when it's first diagnosed, but it often gets worse and makes the person extremely sick. Severe HIV disease is called AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). back to top

How do you get HIV?
HIV can be passed from one person to another in three different ways:
  • direct contact with infected blood, such as by a transfusion or by sharing contaminated needles
  • sexual transmission, from male to female, female to male, or male to male
  • transmission from a pregnant woman to her child during pregnancy or birth. A child can also get HIV through the mother's breast milk. back to top
Who is most likely to get HIV?
Anyone can get HIV, but certain things put people at much higher risk:
  • intravenous (IV) drug abuse
  • unprotected sexual intercourse
  • anal sex
  • multiple sexual partners back to top
How can you prevent HIV?
HIV can be prevented. Here's how:
  • Always use a condom during all sexual encounters (even if you're using something else for birth control).
  • Limit the number of sexual partners you get involved with.
  • Avoid IV drug use.
  • If you do use IV drugs, don't share needles.
  • Anyone who is pregnant and has HIV should talk to her health professional. Medications such as AZT can decrease the risk of passing HIV to an unborn baby. back to top
What are the symptoms of HIV?
There are many different symptoms of HIV disease, but they all have one thing in common. All the symptoms result from the fact that the immune system is extremely weakened by HIV. A person infected with HIV can't fight off infections, even the ones that normally would be harmless.

At first, most people show no signs of the disease. Two to six weeks after being exposed to HIV, a person may develop a mild illness that feels like the flu. This usually goes away on its own. An HIV test will not become positive until 1 to 3 months later. It may take months or years before the symptoms of HIV disease appear. These include:
  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • AIDS-related complex (ARC), which is a group of AIDS-related illnesses
  • thrush, which is a yeast infection of the mouth
  • a low count of the blood cells called platelets
  • yeast infections that come back again and again
  • outbreaks of genital herpes that occur often
The symptoms tend to get worse over time, until the person develops AIDS. When that happens, the body has developed the worst form of HIV.

People who have AIDS often have:
  • pneumonia
  • no appetite and severe weight loss
  • yeast infection of the esophagus
  • severe herpes infections
Women and girls who have HIV have more gynecological problems, such as: How do I know if I have HIV?
If you've ever had unprotected sex without a condom, or if you have multiple sexual partners, you should get tested for HIV. back to top

Where should I go to get tested?
You can go to your health professional or to an anonymous testing center. You might want to think about whether you want to be anonymous, and not have anyone else know about your test. If you get tested by your health professional and your insurance company pays for it, your parents will get a form saying that your insurance company paid for a blood test to check you for HIV. So if you want it to be completely confidential, ask your health professional if you can pay for the test yourself instead of having it billed to your insurance. But if you want to be completely anonymous, go to an HIV test center where you never even give your name, address or telephone number. Everything there is done with an identification number.

Both places will test you confidentially, which means they won't tell anyone else you are getting tested for HIV. They will take a sample of your blood to test for the antibody to HIV. You can call the clinic or your health professional's office for the results of your HIV test in a few weeks.

You can now buy HIV test kits at the drugstore. You prick your finger and put several drops of your blood on special test paper. Then you mail the paper to a lab (using a confidential identification number) and call the lab a few weeks later for the results. back to top

How can I get rid of HIV?
You can't get rid of it. There is no cure for HIV. back to top

How is HIV treated?
Researchers are discovering new treatments for HIV almost every month. Until recently, people with HIV almost always developed AIDS eventually and died. After treatment with the newest medications, some people are living years longer than they might have before.

There are now several different kinds of treatments to help people who have HIV:
  • Treatments for infections. It's not HIV itself that makes you ill. It's that your damaged immune system can't prevent infections caused by bacteria, parasites, and viruses. You can take medications to control or prevent these infections.
  • Antiviral medications. These medications prevent the virus from multiplying in your body. A common antiviral medication is AZT. Many people have had good results with these medications, but the results do not last very long (a few months to a year or more). AZT can prevent a pregnant woman from passing HIV to her unborn baby.
  • Protease inhibitors. This type of medication acts in a different way from antiviral medications, but it still works to prevent the virus from multiplying and spreading throughout the body. Not everyone gets good results from protease inhibitors, but many people who take these drugs are now living years longer than anyone expected. back to top
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Last Modified Date: 4/4/2001
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