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HIV: A disease that does not discriminate

When people hear the term HIV, there are a number of different reactions. Some are indifferent, while others are intimidated. Some imagine dramatic movie scenes, while others picture an emaciated patient wasting away in a hospital bed. A lot people may believe that HIV is something that only homosexual men or drug addicts have to worry about. But HIV is not a Hollywood movie script or a disease that targets specific people. It is reality. Now is the time to understand what HIV is, what it is not, and why it all matters to you.

The HIV virus uses immune system cells to replicate, then destroys the cells.
© Ocean/Corbis

What is HIV?

Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is a virus that spreads when blood, sexual fluids, or breast milk enter a mucous membrane, lesion, or drug injection site. Once infected, you will have the disease for the rest of your life. The virus attacks your immune system cells and makes it difficult or impossible to fight off infection. This means that something as simple as a cold can be dangerously devastating.

Who can get HIV?

Anyone can contract HIV. People usually get it through genital, anal, or oral sex, and sharing infected drug paraphernalia. People cannot get HIV from shaking hands, hugging, casual kissing, water fountains, door knobs, pets, or insects. Statistically, there are certain groups who are at a higher risk. But an HIV infection can occur as long as blood, sexual fluids or breast milk enter a mucous membrane, an area of broken skin, or a street drug injection site. Additionally, if you already have another STD, such as genital herpes, you have a higher chance of contracting or spreading HIV to others.

How can I avoid getting HIV?

Abstinence from sexual activity is the only method that absolutely prevents the spread of HIV. Correct use of latex, plastic, or synthetic rubber condoms will sharply reduce the risk, but lambskin condoms will not. Other established barrier methods, such as the dental dam, can also reduce the risk. Mutually monogamous partners should also get tested. Your doctor may start you on pre-exposure prophylaxis medications in combination with other prevention methods to help prevent an HIV infection. If you may have already been exposed, post-exposure prophylaxis can prevent an HIV infection if you take it zero to three days following the exposure.

How do I find out if I have HIV?

You can ask for an HIV test at any nearly doctor's office, hospital, clinic, or health center. You can also call 1-800-232-4636 to check for free testing facilities near you. Many drugstores even sell at-home test kits. You must protect yourself, you must protect others, and mothers must protect their unborn children. You must get tested regularly.

What will happen to me if I get HIV?

HIV progresses through three stages:

  • Acute infection, acute retroviral syndrome (ARS) or primary HIV infection: During the initial weeks following an infection, you will have flu-like symptoms or no symptoms at all. The virus will flood your body, invade CD4 immune cells, copy the virus, then destroy the CD4 cells. Your body will then destroy some of the HIV population, but not all of it.
  • Clinical latency, asymptomatic HIV infection or chronic HIV infection: HIV reproduction slows, and you may be asymptomatic. Eventually, though, HIV reproduction will regain speed and begin destroying CD4 cells again. At the end of this stage, HIV will almost completely destroy your immune system.
  • AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome):Your CD4 count falls below 200 cells/mm3 or you develop an opportunistic illness. Without treatment during this stage, you will die within 1 to 3 years.

What can I do if I get HIV?

Though people can can die from HIV, we now have more treatment options than ever before. There is no cure for HIV, but antiretroviral therapy (ART) is available. A new and rare form of HIV, called an HIV superinfection, may not respond to ART. Nonetheless, you should never stop taking your medications, even if you experience side effects. Your doctor will help you find a course of treatment that is right for you. And always remember that you can still spread HIV to others at any time.

No one likes thinking about HIV, but it is a discussion that we all need to have. HIV does not discriminate, no matter who you are. Be safe, be smart, and be healthy. Live for today and prepare for tomorrow. At the end of the day, you can be prepared, no matter what happens. For some, HIV is a part of life, but it doesn't have to be the end of it.

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