HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). HIV attacks an infected person’s T-cells and replicates itself, gradually wearing down their immune system. When HIV destroys a large amount of T-cells, it is called AIDS, which is the most advanced stage of HIV. HIV was officially identified in the early 1980s and was thought to come from West Central Africa (learn more about the history of HIV and AIDS on Frontline here). Since then, it has spread to millions of people around the world. It is estimated that 40,000 people get HIV every year, and 1 million cases of AIDS are reported within the U.S. HIV can be spread through body fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. People most commonly get HIV from unprotected vaginal or anal sex, sharing needles with someone that has HIV, being punctured with a needle or surgical instrument contaminated with HIV, or having an open wound that is exposed to the body fluid of an infected person. Mothers can also pass HIV to their babies during birth or breastfeeding. Donated blood is tested for HIV, and people cannot get it from kissing, sharing drinking glasses, hugging, or handshakes.
Symptoms of HIV include swollen glands (throat, armpit, groin), slight fever, headaches, fatigue, and muscle aches that can last for a few days or a few weeks. The signs can be very ambiguous, and while some people develop HIV symptoms within months of being infected, other people may not develop symptoms for 10 years or more.
AIDS is not as subtle as HIV and in addition to a compromised immune system, symptoms may include:
- Thrush — a thick, whitish coating of the tongue or mouth that is caused by a yeast infection and sometimes accompanied by a sore throat.
- Severe or recurring vaginal yeast infections.
- Chronic pelvic inflammatory disease.
- Severe and frequent infections.
- Periods of extreme and unexplained tiredness that may be combined with headaches, lightheadedness, and/or dizziness.
- Quick loss of more than 10 pounds of weight that is not due to increased physical exercise or dieting.
- Bruising more easily than normal.
- Long periods of frequent diarrhea.
- Frequent fevers and/or night sweats.
- Swelling or hardening of glands located in the throat, armpit, or groin.
- Periods of persistent, deep, dry coughing.
- Increasing shortness of breath.
- The appearance of discolored or purplish growths on the skin or inside the mouth.
- Unexplained bleeding from growths on the skin, from the mouth, nose, anus, or vagina, or from any opening in the body.
- Frequent or unusual skin rashes.
- Severe numbness or pain in the hands or feet, the loss of muscle control and reflex, paralysis, or loss of muscular strength.
- Confusion, personality change, or decreased mental abilities.
Researchers are hoping to develop a vaccine though there is currently no cure for HIV/ AIDS. There are medications and dietary suggestions to help manage the symptoms. Antiviral therapies (ART) can allow people with HIV to live for many years or even have a normal life span by reducing the amount of HIV in the blood and allowing T-cell levels to increase and keep the immune system strong. The downsides of these medications are their cost (they can be VERY expensive), their side effects, and that they may not be available to everyone, only work for some people, and may only be effective for a limited amount of time. Once you have one STD, it is usually much easier to get another STD, especially HIV. And if you have already got HIV it is easier to get other STDs (if exposed) – and because the immune system is under so much stress, often the other STD’s symptoms will be more extreme than they would be without HIV. It is also much easier to get sick – sometimes severely or fatally – from other everyday illnesses and infections that normally wouldn’t do much harm.
Because HIV is spread through body fluids, condoms and other protective plastic barriers (like a female condom) are pretty effective during sexual play. Not sharing needles is also highly recommended in preventing HIV. Basically not sharing anything that may have someone else blood on it – toothbrushes, blades and razors, needles for piercing or tattoos, syringes, sex toys, – is a good idea if you want to lessen your potential exposure to any infection that can be spread through blood and other body fluids.
Interestingly, there are individuals – less than 1% of the population – that are naturally resistant to HIV/ AIDS. Perhaps the most well-documented case is of Stephen Crohn, an artist and freelance editor that lost many friends and his partner to AIDS over the last 35 years. His story was featured in the PBS series, Secrets of the Dead, click here to watch the video discussing the similarities of The Black Death and the HIV virus and possible immunity to both because of the mutated Delta 32 gene.
Here are a few solid websites to do more in-depth reading on HIV and AIDS:
AIDS.gov (latest news and information from the federal government)
Also, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a toll-free hotline you can call to get more information about HIV in English and Spanish: 1-800-232-4636
To find a location to get tested for HIV visit our resources page, or Google test centers in your area. If you are HIV+ and you want to find a support group, try The Complete HIV/ AIDS Resource, type your zip code into the AIDS Service Location (ASO) to find the location nearest you, or check out Daily Strength (Online HIV+ Support Group).
Lastly, as highlighted by PRweb, PositiveSingles, the largest dating site for people with STDs, recommends watching these films:
Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyers Club is a 2013 American biographical drama film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. The film mainly portrays a story about an electrician called Ron Woodroof who is diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live. He fights his disease and outlives the 30 days allotted to him, dying some 7 years later. When Ron is diagnosed as being HIV positive, he finds himself ostracized by family and friends, gets fired from his job, and is eventually evicted from his home. The film won the Best Actor in a Leading Role for Matthew McConaughey who played Ron Woodroof and the Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Jared Leto.
Philadelphia was a 1993 American drama film and one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to acknowledge HIV/AIDS, homosexuality, and homophobia. The film is about a senior associate who is subsequently fired because of his AIDS diagnosis. Finally, the jury votes in his favor, awarding him back pay, damages for pain and suffering, and punitive damages totaling more than $5 million. Philadelphia won Tom Hanks the Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Original Song (Bruce Springsteen for “Streets of Philadelphia”). Tom Hanks also won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 44th Berlin International Film Festival.
Angels in America
Angels in America was the most-watched made-for-cable film in 2003. It revolves around six disparate New Yorkers whose lives intersect. At its core, it has the fantastical story of Prior Walter, a gay man dying of AIDS who is visited by an angel. In 2006, Seattle Times listed the series among the “Best of the filmed AIDS portrayals” on the 25th anniversary of AIDS.
***This is a blog and the information on this website is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, nor is it meant to take the place of your personal physician’s advice.***