What is HIV?

Table of Contents

What is HIV?

HIV is a sexually transmitted infection, caused by the human immunodeficiency virus. 

HIV attacks the body’s immune system. If it goes untreated, it can lead to a condition called AIDs. 

HIV may be passed from person to person through bodily fluids. HIV is most commonly contracted through sexual contact. HIV may be passed through blood, semen or vaginal fluids. It may also be passed through pre-seminal fluid, breast milk and vaginal secretions.


What causes HIV?

HIV is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, it can be spread through contact with infected bodily fluids. 

HIV is most commonly spread through sexual contact, the sharing of injecting equipment and from mother to child during pregnancy and childbirth. 

But, how did it all start? What causes HIV? 

The virus was first identified in the 1980s, in the beginnings of what was known as the “AIDs crisis”. 

It is widely accepted that HIV passed from chimps to humans in the 1920s, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1999, researchers found a strain of SIV (called SIVcpz) in a chimpanzee that was almost identical to HIV in humans.

The researchers who discovered this connection concluded that chimpanzees were the original source of HIV-1, and that the virus had at some point crossed species from chimps to humans during the time in which chimpanzees were being hunted. 

It is believed that HIV passed through the eating of chimps and the mixing of chimp and human bodily fluids during the hunting process.

What happens if you get HIV?

If HIV goes undiagnosed and untreated, it can progress to AIDs (acquired immunodeficiency disorder). If you get HIV, it is likely that you will not be aware that you have the virus until you start to experience symptoms, even then, it can be hard to tell whether or not you have HIV. 

The early symptoms of HIV often mimic flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, muscle aches and pains, a sore throat, mouth ulcers, swollen lymph nodes and fever. The incubation period for HIV can vary widely, with an average of 40 to 60 days.

Due to the fact that the symptoms so closely mimic that of a flu, it would easily fall under the radar of a simple cold, as opposed to HIV. This is why it is so important to undergo a sexual health screening at least once per year. 

As mentioned, if HIV goes undiagnosed and untreated, it can progress to AIDs (acquired immunodeficiency disorder). There are three stages of HIV. 

Three stages of HIV 

The three stages of HIV include: 

  1. Acute HIV Infection 
  2. Chronic HIV Infection 
  3. Acquired Immunodeficiency Disorder

Acute HIV Infection 

During acute HIV infection, people have a “high viral load” - i.e. they have a large volume of the virus in their blood. During acute viral infection, people are highly contagious, and may experience flu-like symptoms. Some people will not experience any symptoms during this stage. 

Chronic HIV Infection 

Chronic HIV infection is also known as asymptomatic HIV infection or clinical latency. During chronic HIV infection, the virus continues to reproduce but at a lower rate. 

People may not experience any symptoms during chronic HIV infection. Without treatment, the second stage of HIV may last for a decade or longer. It is possible to give other people HIV during this stage. 

If HIV is diagnosed and treated during this stage, it is possible to control viral replication so that the infection won’t progress to AIDS. However, if HIV is left undiagnosed and untreated, it will inevitably progress to AIDS over time.

Acquired Immunodeficiency Disorder (AIDs)

AIDs is the most severe phase of HIV infection. People who are living with AIDs will have severely damaged immune systems and may face a number of severe illnesses, known as opportunistic infections. People who are living with AIDs are highly contagious. 

Without treatment, the average life expectancy for patients with HIV is 9-11 years from initial exposure. Life expectancy with untreated AIDS is around 6 and 19 months if left untreated.

How long can you live with HIV?

The goods news is that people who have HIV can live a long, normal and happy life if they receive treatment for the infection. 

While there is no cure for HIV, highly effective medication has been developed since the 1980s AIDs crisis which means that people who are diagnosed with HIV today can typically expect to live to a normal life expectancy. 

How long can you stay undetectable?

HIV can remain undetectable once treatment has commenced for an infinite amount of time. 

HIV is described as undetectable once the viral load can no longer be detected by blood tests because the quantities of the virus are so low in the bloodstream. This can be achieved through antiretroviral treatment (ART).


How do I know if I have HIV? 

  • You experience flu-like symptoms 2-4 weeks after an unprotected sexual encounter.
  • You may be notified by a sexual partner 

The only way to confirm your diagnosis is to take a HIV test, unfortunately, the symptoms of HIV often mimic other conditions so until you receive a confirmatory diagnosis, you will not be fully sure as to whether or not you have HIV. 

How can I get tested for HIV? 

There are two different types of test for HIV, an oral test and a blood test: 

  • Oral test: For the oral test, HIV specific antibodies will be screened in your saliva. To have an accurate result, do not eat or drink for 15 minutes before you start the test, also do not use mouth cleaning products 30 minutes before you start the test. Please read instructions carefully and make sure you do not touch the flat pad for sample collection with your fingers, then, just follow instructions o swab around your mouth and wait for 40 minutes until you obtain the result.
  • Blood test: For the blood test, a sample of blood will be collected after a little pick on your finger like the one needed for blood sugar measurements. After the blood sample is collected into a collection card, results will be sent to the lab and you will receive a confirmation 1-2 days after. In the case of a positive result, and if you select one of the providers mentioned below, you will be guided by a medical professional through all the process.


How long does it take to find out if I have HIV? 

Depending on the type of HIV test you take, HIV results could take as little as 20 minutes (rapid testing) or several days (traditional blood testing). 

Can you get HIV through kissing? 

You can get HIV from kissing, though it is extremely rare. 

Deep, open-mouth kissing if both partners have sores or bleeding gums and blood from the HIV-positive partner gets into the bloodstream of the HIV-negative partner. HIV is not spread through saliva.

Written by Hannah Kingston on May 10, 2021




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