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HIV: Symptoms, Causes and Prevention

What is HIV?

The human immunodeficiency virus or HIV, as it’s more commonly referred to, is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system, weakening its ability to fight disease-causing germs. It is transmitted through infected blood, semen or vaginal secretions. The mother can also infect her child during childbirth and breastfeeding.

If HIV infection is left untreated, you can develop acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is the final stage of HIV infection. It is a fatal condition in which the body’s immunity is severely impaired. Although there is no cure for HIV infection, early diagnosis and treatment can slow its progression.

There are three stages of HIV infection:

  • Primary or acute infection: The virus multiplies rapidly and attacks the immune system, specifically the CD4 white blood cells. You are likely to present with flu-like HIV symptoms. You have a high risk of transmitting HIV infection to others. This phase may last for a few months.
  • Clinical latency: The virus continues to reproduce but at a slower pace. You are unlikely to show HIV symptoms but you can transmit HIV infection. If you are not receiving treatment, this stage can last from 5 to 10 years.
  • AIDS: Without treatment, the virus will reproduce rapidly again and attack the CD4 cells. When your CD4 cells fall below 200 cells/mm3 (500 to 1,600 cells/mm3 is normal), you are likely to develop AIDS. You will be vulnerable to all kinds of infections – known as opportunistic infections – because of your weakened immunity.

HIV symptoms

HIV symptoms usually develop within a month after you get infected with the virus. HIV symptoms may last for a few weeks during the first stage of HIV infection, after which patients may not display any symptoms at all. Common HIV symptoms include the following:

  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Breathlessness
  • Prolonged fever
  • Headache
  • Aches and pains
  • Night sweats
  • Tiredness
  • Weight loss
  • Skin rash
  • Persistent diarrhoea
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Swollen lymph glands on the neck
  • Blurred vision

HIV prevention

HIV is one of the world’s most serious health challenges. As many as 35 million people, including 3.2 million children (<15 years old), were living with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2013, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Though HIV is highly contagious and incurable, it can be prevented from spreading. HIV prevention is two-pronged and includes protecting yourself from contracting HIV infection and preventing transmission of HIV infection to others.

HIV infection can be transmitted in the following ways:

  • Sexual intercourse: Unprotected sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal) and oral sex
  • Blood: Blood transfusion, sharing HIV-contaminated needles, syringes or other piercing instruments (e.g. for tattooing or acupuncture)
  • Mother to baby: During pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding

You can’t get HIV through regular social contact, hugging, kissing, or shaking hands. Nor is HIV transmitted through air, water, food, toilet seats or insect bites.

How to protect yourself from HIV infection

  • Avoid casual sex and limit your sex partners.
  • Always use condoms (male or female) correctly every time you have any kind of sexual activity, including oral sex.
  • Get regular check-ups for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) which increase your risk of developing HIV.
  • Use sterile needles/syringes and other piercing instruments, and don’t share these.
  • Accept only HIV-screened blood if you are getting a blood transfusion.
  • More frequent testing is recommended for the MSM/gay population.

If you are at high risk for HIV, you should see your physician and consider the following:

  • Regular HIV testing
  • PrEP (Pre Exposure Prophylaxis) medication. The suitability for PrEP needs to be discussed with your doctor.

How to prevent HIV transmission

  • Get antiretroviral therapy (ART) to treat your HIV infection.
  • Tell your sexual partners about your HIV status.
  • Avoid casual sex and opt for less risky sexual behaviour.
  • Always use a condom during any sexual activity.
  • Don’t share needles/syringes/piercing instruments.

How to prevent HIV transmission if you are pregnant

  • Get antiretroviral therapy (ART).
  • Deliver your baby by C-section.
  • Avoid breastfeeding.

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