Many people think that HIV and AIDS are the same things, using the two words interchangeably. While they are connected, they are two distinct illnesses.
HIV is a virus that can be transferred from person to person, and it damages the immune system. AIDS is the result of HIV damaging the immune system. The health risks of developing AIDS from HIV are so severe that they can cause pneumonia, tuberculosis, and even cancer.
Our bodies can usually fight off viruses, but this is not the case with HIV. Because of this, in the past, if you contracted HIV, it was considered a death sentence. However, thanks to constant research and the development of medications, a person with HIV can live a long and healthy life. The medications controlling HIV prevent it from multiplying and reaching higher stages–one of those being AIDS.
What Causes HIV & AIDS?
HIV attacks a type of white blood cell called a “CD4” in the body’s immune system. Attacking these cells inhibits the body’s ability to fight infections. Once contracted, a person will live with HIV for life. There are different ways HIV can be contracted. It is spread by:
- Bodily fluids exchanged during unprotected sex.
- Sharing needles with someone that has the virus.
- Receiving a blood transfusion or transplant from blood with HIV(very uncommon these days due to blood screenings before use).
- Breast milk to an infant from an HIV-positive mother, or to the fetus in the womb.
After contracting HIV, the virus can progress into what is known as Acquired ImmunoDeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). It develops when infection reaches HIV stage 3. This happens when a person does not get treatment, or is unaware that they have been infected, and the virus multiplies, damaging the immune system to the point that AIDS develops.
The Lack Of Symptoms
When a person is infected with HIV, symptoms are not always present. Usually, after about 2-4 weeks of infection (called acute infection, stage 1) a person might display flu-like symptoms. The symptoms include fever, weakness, a rash, and enlarged lymph nodes.
However, not everyone will experience these exact symptoms–if any at all. It is the main reason why STD screenings are so important for sexually active individuals. HIV is largely spread during, because during the acute stage the person has no symptoms, and their viral load is large.
Stages 2 & 3
Stage 2 HIV can last up to 10 years or more. You enter Stage 3 HIV when your immune system is so damaged that it can no longer fight off serious illnesses or infections. This is when the virus is now considered AIDS. The earlier a person is diagnosed with HIV, the better their chances of long-term health.
If left untreated, AIDS can develop anywhere from 2-15 years after contracting the virus. However, this is only a guideline. Each person’s body is different, so the time span for your specific development can be incredibly different in comparison to the person next to you. Here are some determining factors of what slows down the development of AIDS:
- Overall health
- Other infections
- Strength of the immune system
Diagnosis of HIV can be done with a simple blood test or saliva swab test. It is important to know that it can take several weeks after contracting HIV to get a positive test result. This is because they look for antibodies instead of the actual virus because it’s easier to find our body’s natural response to the virus.
In order to diagnose AIDS, or stage 3 HIV, a doctor has to count the CD4 cells left in a person’s body. A person without HIV will have anywhere from 500-1,200 of the cells. When it drops to 200 cells or less, then a person receives an AIDS diagnosis.
As stated, if a person catches HIV in its early stages, and receives the proper medication in time, their life expectancy will remain normal. But once a person develops AIDS, their life expectancy drops significantly. There is no reversing the damage done to the immune system.
PrEP can offer protection to people who are at risk of contracting HIV. Under the brand name Truvuda, the pill contains two medications, tenofovir and emtricitabine, that can stop the virus, even if exposure occurs. The pill can reduce the chance of infection by 92%.
A person can have HIV without AIDS, but they cannot have AIDS without having HIV first. That is the difference between the two infections. AIDS can be totally prevented if someone listens to their body and gets checked out if they suspect HIV. This is doubly important if that someone also shares needles or has unprotected sex. It is critical to get checked because it can save you from developing a life-threatening illness. Know your status!