Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV is a retrovirus that infects the human immune system.
How does it infect?
HIV enters the body when infected body fluids from another person comes into contact with your own mucous membranes or a break in the skin. This doesn’t mean HIV can spread easily, though. In fact there are only a small handful of recognised ways that HIV spreads; sexual intercourse, sharing of drug needles, infected blood transfusions, and from mother to baby during pregnancy.
Once HIV is able to enter your blood stream, should there be a sufficient number of the virus remaining that hasn’t been killed by your immune system, it will bind to CD4 cells (white blood cells) and enter that cell. It then uses the cell to replicate and eventually erupts through the cell membrane, into the blood, ready to infect more CD4 cells.
Will there be symptoms?
Flu-like symptoms may occur during the early part of the infection, typically 2-4 weeks after infection. This is known as the ‘Acute retroviral syndrome’ symptoms. Patients typically describe severe flu symptoms, likened to ‘the worst flu ever’. It is important to note here that symptoms are not reliable and testing is still the only way to sure about an HIV infection.
Can it be cured?
Currently the simple answer is no. It can be managed well but no confirmed cure exists at the moment. There is currently research looking into a potential cure which is very exciting at the moment but will still require many years of research, yet.
A caveat to this is if an infection has occurred within the last 72 hours, then medication known as PEP can cure HIV. But this must be started within 72 hours otherwise it is no longer effective. The reason behind this is that while HIV remains in the blood within the first 72 hours it can be targeted and completely eliminated by the medication. After 72 hours HIV often goes dormant as it invades other cells of the body. Once it is hiding in these cells the medication can no longer target it.
Why do people become so ill with HIV?
HIV is a double whammy. Not only is there no cure yet, it also infects your immune system. If someone who is HIV positive does not take regular medication to suppress the virus it continues to enter and kill many immune system cells, which in turn weakens the overall immune system. This is why those with HIV (and those who later progress to AIDS – remember you must have HIV before you can progress to AIDS) often experience many more illnesses than those without HIV.
How can I know if I have HIV?
The only way is through HIV testing. As long as the right test is used based on your exposure window period then you can be sure of a conclusive result. Remember, symptoms are not reliable in HIV.
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