What is H.I.V.?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This
is a virus that people can become infected with and then they can pass
on to others.
When someone becomes infected with HIV it begins
to attack their immune
system which is the bodys defence against illness, this process
is not always visible. Once a person becomes infected with HIV they
will remain infected for life.
What causes H.I.V. to develop?
Blood is made up of a fluid called plasma and three types of cells. Red blood
cells, which give blood it's colour, platelets, which help the blood
to clot and white blood cells. It is the white blood cells which defend
the body from germs and fight infections. One of the most important
white blood cells is called a T-helper cell (commonly
called a CD4 cell). The CD4 cell is a crucial
cell in the immune system as it co-ordinates all the other immune cells.
HIV infects cells in the immune system and central nervous system. The main cell HIV infects
is the CD4 cell. Like all viruses, the HIV virus only wants to do one
thing, reproduce itself. Once it has attacked the CD4 cell, it takes
it over and reproduces itself. During this process (which takes a couple
of days) the infected cell dies and the virus seeks out other CD4 cells
The CD4 cells of someone infected with HIV will battle
against the invading infection and so it may be years before you notice
any symptoms. However, the virus is not completely
destroyed or eradicated from the body, and will continue to attack the
CD4 cells. Eventually as your CD4 cell count goes down you might start
having signs of HIV disease like fevers, night sweats, diarrhoea or
nodes. These problems may continue for several weeks.
What is A.I.D.S.?
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
The term AIDS is very rarely used in the medical profession, they prefer
to talk of late stage or advanced HIV infection. Before effective treatments
AIDS was a state someone infected with HIV almost inevitably entered,
as HIV attacked their immune system. This is no longer the case.
A person was said to have AIDS when, usually after
a few years after first becoming infected with HIV, they develop one
of a number of rare illnesses or cancers because their immune system is weakened.
How is HIV passed on?
HIV is present in sexual fluids and blood of infected
people, it may also be in the breast-milk of infected women. Because
of the way in which HIV is spread the 2 most common ways of contracting
the virus is through unprotected penetrative sex (where the penis enters the vagina or anus),
and the use of infected needles and syringes. HIV can also be passed
on to an unborn baby either before or during birth. There is a small
risk of you contracting HIV through oral sex but this is very rare.
It is not possible for HIV to be contracted through
touching, hugging, sharing cutlery, insect
bites, toilet seats or eating food that has been prepared
by a person with H.I.V.
How do I avoid catching H.I.V.?
You can avoid catching HIV by practicing safe sex,
this refers to any sexual activities which does not involve any sexual
fluid from one person getting into another persons body. Safe
sex activities include kissing, touching and mutual masturbation.
A condom when used properly and consistently acts as a physical barrier,
making it hard for the virus to pass between people.
If you inject drugs make sure
you only use your own syringe or needles and always sterilize them before
and after use.
What are the symptoms of H.I.V.?
The majority of people who are infected
with HIV will have no symptoms in the early stages. People are often
unaware they have the infection and so may be spreading the infection
to others. A doctor may suspect you have HIV after a series of unusual
infections known as 'opportunistic infections' or cancers, examples
of opportunistic infections include:
- Thrush - in the mouth, genital area or gullet (oesophagus).
- Herpes simplex virus - a virus which can cause
coldsores or genital
- Toxoplasmosis - parasite that causes lung and
- Cytomegalovirus (C.M.V.) - a virus that causes pneumonia,
bowel infections and severe eye infections that
may end in blindness.
- Mycobacterium Avium Complex (M.A.C.) - a infection
that can cause high fever, diarrhoea and weight
loss. If it spreads it can cause blood infections, hepatitis or pneumonia.
- Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia (P.C.P.) - a infection
that can cause a deadly form of pneumonia.
- Kaposi's sarcoma - a cancer
that causes purple-coloured spots or lesions on the skin or lining
of the mouth.
- Peripheral neuropathy - a disease of the nerves that
may be a side affect of the H.I.V. drugs or a result of one of the
other infections mentioned above. Neuropathy can be a minor problem
but in serious cases can cause disabling weakness e.g. difficulty
in standing or walking.
What are the stages of H.I.V.
HIV can usually be broken down into 4 stages: -
Stage 1- Primary stage.
This stage of infection lasts a few weeks and will
often be accompanied by a flu like illness which occurs just after infection. A HIV test at this time
may not yet prove positive.
Stage 2 - Clinically asymptomatic stage.
This stage can last for an average of 10 years and
as its name suggests usually has no symptoms, although there may be
swollen glands. HIV remains infectious and will now show up positive
in a test.
Stage 3 - Symptomatic H.I.V. infection.
Over time the immune system loses the struggle to
contain HIV, this is for 3 main reasons: -
1. The lymph
nodes and tissues become damaged because of activity over the years's.
2. HIV becomes stronger and more varied, leading
to more CD4 cell destruction.
3. The body fails to keep up replacing the CD4 cells
that are lost.
As a results you may get infections and cancers
(see symptoms above) that normally the immune system would prevent causing
'symptomatic HIV infection'.
Stage 4 - Progression from HIV to AIDS now
properly called advanced HIV infection.
As the immune system becomes more and more damaged
the illnesses that occur become more and more severe leading to an AIDS
diagnosis. People can be very ill with HIV but not have an AIDS diagnosis.
What treatment is available for H.I.V.?
There is no cure for AIDS and at present there is
no vaccine to prevent people from becoming infected with HIV
However, there are a wide range of treatments now
available and recent research has shown that taking a combination of
anti-HIV drugs (combination therapy) can slow down the damaging effect
of HIV on the immune system. When the treatment is successful, it can
improve and sustain the health of someone with HIV meaning they are
less likely to develop AIDS. defining conditions. There are a minority
of people who are unable to benefit from the current anti-HIV drugs
but many who were seriously ill with HIV have returned to good health
and in many cases returned to work as a result of the drugs.
Some researchers believe that the new strong anti-HIV
drugs might kill off all the HIV if taken for several years, but it
hasnt happened as yet.
Should I have an H.I.V. test?
If you have any concerns talk to your doctor or
a trained counsellor at a G.U.M.
clinic and they can help you decide whether to have a HIV
test or not, though the final decision will be left up to you.
There are no specific symptoms which can tell whether
a person is infected or not, the only way to know for certain is by
having a HIV antibody test. The test looks for HIV antibodies in a persons
blood. Remember, it can take 3 months for HIV antibodies to develop
to a level where they will show up on a test result.
The results of a HIV test can take anything from
a few hours to a week or more to come back, you may have to book up
in advance if you want the result the same day.
If you have a test at a clinic it should be strictly
confidential to you and the staff concerned, staff will advise you to
tell your doctor but no one will be told without your permission.
Anyone in the U.K. can have a free HIV test, they
are available from your doctor and local G.U.M. clinic.
Living with H.I.V.
People living with HIV will need to
have 2 tests regularly to monitor the infection and to see how well
the treatment is working.
A CD4 (T-helper) count - this
measures the number of CD4 cells in the blood, this will give you and
your doctor an idea of how the infection is progressing. The lower the
amount of CD4 cells (usually below 200) the more prone you are to infections.
Healthy people have between 800 and 1,500 CD4 cells in a millilitre
A viral load test - this measures
the amount of HIV in the blood. The higher the viral load the
more virus there is in your blood. This test is used along with the
CD4 cell count to help your doctor decide when to start or change your
Your doctor will also advise you to get immunizations
to prevent infections such as pneumonia and influenza.
If you are a smoker or use drugs not prescribed by your
doctor you should quit. Try to maintain a healthy
diet, exercise regularly (if you are able) and find time
to relax and ensure you get enough sleep.
What happens if I have H.I.V.?
Living with the knowledge of a life threatening
condition is very stressful, you will need to look at ways of taking
particular care of your own health. It also means you can pass the virus
on to others. You will be offered a referral on to a HIV specialist,
to discuss whether to start treatment.
Remember, you are at no risk of getting the infection
from normal everyday contact with a person infected with HIV or AIDS.