WHAT IS IT?
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome:
- Acquired means you can get infected with it.
- Immune Deficiency means a weakness in the body’s system that fights diseases.
- Syndrome means a group of health problems that make up a disease.
AIDS is caused by a virus called HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. If you get infected with HIV, your body will try to fight the infection. It will make antibodies – special molecules to fight HIV. A blood test for HIV looks for these antibodies. If you have them in your blood, it means that you have HIV infection. People who have HIV antibodies are called “HIV-Positive.”
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
Being HIV-positive, or having HIV disease, is not the same as having AIDS. Many people are HIV-positive but don’t get sick for several years. As HIV disease continues, it slowly wears down the immune system. Viruses, parasites, fungi and bacteria that usually don’t cause any problems can make you very sick if your immune system is damaged. These are called “opportunistic infections.”
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Infection with HIV is life changing. HIV disease becomes AIDS when your immune system is seriously damaged. If you have less than 200 CD4+ cells or if your CD4+ percentage is less than 14%, you have AIDS. If you get an opportunistic infection, you have AIDS. The most common opportunistic infections are:
- PCP (Pneumocystis pneumonia), a lung infection.
- KS (Kaposi’s sarcoma), a skin cancer.
- CMV (Cytomegalovirus), an infection that usually affects the eyes.
- Candida, a fungal infection that can cause thrush (a white film in your mouth) or infections in your throat or vagina.
AIDS-related diseases also include serious weight loss, brain tumors, and other health problems. Without treatment, these opportunistic infections can kill you.
There is no cure for AIDS. There are drugs that can slow down the HIV virus, and slow down the damage to your immune system. There is no way to “clear” HIV from the body.
Other drugs can prevent or treat opportunistic infections (OIs). In most cases, these drugs work very well. The newer, stronger anti-HIV drugs have also helped reduce the rates of most OIs. A few OIs, however, are still very difficult to treat.
HOW DO YOU GET HIV/AIDS?
You don’t actually “get” AIDS. You might get infected with HIV, and later you might develop AIDS. You can get infected with HIV from anyone who’s infected, even if they don’t look sick and even if they haven’t tested HIV-positive yet. The blood, vaginal fluid, semen, and breast milk of people infected with HIV has enough of the virus in it to infect other people. Most people get the HIV virus by:
- having unprotected sex with an infected person
- sharing a needle (shooting drugs) with someone who’s infected
- being born to an HIV-positive mother, or drinking the breast milk of an infected woman
Getting a transfusion of infected blood used to be a way people got infected with HIV, but now the blood supply in the United States is screened very carefully and the risk is extremely low.
There are no documented cases of HIV being transmitted by tears or saliva. It may be possible to get infected with HIV through oral sex, especially if you have open sores in your mouth or bleeding gums, but it is very uncommon.
The bottom line: if you are having sex, using a condom is the best way to protect yourself and your partner from HIV. If you are shooting drugs, don’t share needles.