What is HIV?

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks cells in the immune system, which is our body’s natural defence mechanism against illness. The virus destroys a type of white blood cell in the immune system called a T-helper cell, and makes copies of itself inside these cells. T-helper cells are also referred to as CD4 cells. As HIV destroys more CD4 cells and makes more copies of itself, it gradually weakens a person’s immune system. This means that someone who has HIV, and isn’t taking antiretroviral treatment, will find it harder and harder to fight off even the most basic infections. If HIV is left untreated, it may take up to 10 or 15 years for the immune system to be so severely damaged that it can no longer defend itself at all. However, the rate at which HIV progresses varies depending on age, general health and background of a person.


What is AIDS?

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a set of symptoms (or syndrome as opposed to a virus) caused by HIV. People with HIV don’t always acquire AIDS. In absence of treatment, it generally may take 10 years for AIDS to develop. AIDS is the last stage of HIV, when the infection is very advanced, and if left untreated will lead to death. Fewer people develop AIDS now because there is treatment for HIV now which means that more people are staying well. Although there is no cure for HIV, with the right treatment and support, people living with HIV can enjoy long and healthy lives. For this, it’s especially important to commit to taking treatment correctly. We have examples where people are living well into their 40s and 50s still very active and healthy.


What are the symptoms of HIV?

People typically appear completely healthy for a long period of time even if they’re infected with HIV. The symptoms of HIV at each stage can vary in type and severity from person-to-person and some people may not get any symptoms at all for many years. Without antiretroviral treatment, the virus multiplies in the body and causes more and more damage to the immune system. This is why people need to start treatment as soon as possible after testing positive. First Stage: Around one to four weeks after getting HIV, some people will experience symptoms that can feel like flu. These may not last long (a week or two) and you may only get some of the flu symptoms – or none at all. Experiencing these symptoms alone is not a reliable way of diagnosing HIV. You should always visit your healthcare professional if you’re worried about or think you’ve been at risk of getting HIV, even if you don’t feel unwell or have any of the following symptoms. They can then arrange for you to get tested. Symptoms can include:

  • fever (raised temperature)
  • body rash
  • sore throat
  • swollen glands
  • headache
  • upset stomach
  • joint aches and pains
  • muscle pain

Second Stage: Once a person has been through the acute primary infection stage and seroconversion process, they can often start to feel better. In fact, HIV may not cause any other symptoms for up to 10 or even 15 years (depending on age, background and general health). However, the virus will still be active, infecting new cells and making copies of itself. If left untreated, over time, this will cause severe damage to the immune system.

By the third stage of HIV infection a person’s immune system is severely damaged. At this point, they’re more likely to get serious infections, or bacterial and fungal diseases that the body would otherwise be able to fight off. These infections are referred to as ‘opportunistic infections’.

Symptoms can include:

  • weight loss
  • chronic diarrhoea
  • night sweats
  • fever
  • persistent cough
  • mouth and skin problems
  • regular infections
  • serious illness or disease


What are the symptoms of AIDS?

Here are some important things to look out for:

  • Sore throat Headaches
  • Thrush (a white-ish coating on your tongue)
  • Yeast infections Chronic pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Developing bad infections often
  • Losing a significant amount of weight quickly
  • Bruising easily
  • Dry coughing
  • Having diarrhea, night sweats, or fevers for a long period of time
  • Shortness of breath
  • Getting dizzy
  • Swollen glands in groin, throat, or armpit
  • Purple growths in your mouth or on your skin
  • Skin rashes Bleeding from your nose, mouth, vagina, or anus
  • Becoming increasingly numb


Cure for HIV and AIDS

There is no cure for HIV/AIDS yet. However, ART treatment can control HIV virus and enable people to live a long and healthy life. If you think you’ve been at risk of HIV, it's important to get tested. Testing is the only way to know for sure if you have the virus. If you’ve already tested and your result is positive, you’ll be advised to start antiretroviral treatment as soon as possible. Treatment is the only way to manage HIV and prevent it from damaging your immune system. It also reduces the risk of passing HIV on to your sexual partner(s).


Is HIV a death sentence?

No. If you’re HIV positive, it’s not the end of the world. You can absolutely still live an entirely normal and healthy life. But, you do have to make sure that you reduce the chances that you’ll pass HIV onto your partner(s). Here are some things to do: Always use condoms. Always. Get tested for other STDs often! Acquiring other STDs increases your likelihood of passing HIV onto other people. Don’t share needles. Begin treatments for HIV as soon as you can.


What should I do now?

It’s important to develop a support system of key people who you can rely on. This support circle doesn’t need to be big - it can be some of your closest friends or people who you know are reliable. If you’re having trouble finding a support group, there are tons of support groups online for people living with HIV. What you have to do from here on out, however, is tell any of your partners that you have HIV. It can be scary to tell others, and they might need some time. If they treat you badly and say bad things about you, however, that’s unacceptable. You do not deserve that - you deserve all the love in the world.


How to prevent HIV?

The most important thing that you can do for yourself is use condoms. Use condoms every single time! You can also get on a daily pill regimen called PrEP that helps prevent HIV. Your doctor can help you choose the best program for you.


How is HIV transmitted?

HIV lives in the following bodily fluids of an infected person:

  • blood
  • semen and pre-seminal fluid (“pre-cum”)
  • rectal fluids/anal mucous
  • vaginal fluids
  • breast milk.

To get infected, these bodily fluids need to get into your blood through a mucous membrane (for example the lining of the vagina, rectum, the opening of the penis, or the mouth), breaks in the skin (like cuts), or be injected directly into your bloodstream.

Other bodily fluids, like saliva, sweat or urine, don't contain enough of the virus to transmit it to another person.

The main ways you can get HIV are:

Sharing injecting equipment: sharing needles, syringes or other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs with someone who has HIV.

Passed from mother-to-baby during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding: a mother infected with HIV can pass the virus to her baby via her blood during pregnancy and birth, and through her breast milk when breastfeeding.

Contaminated blood transfusions and organ/tissue transplants: receiving blood transfusions, blood products, or organ/tissue transplants that are contaminated with HIV. This risk is extremely small because most countries test blood products for HIV first.

If adequate safety practices are not in place, healthcare workers can also be at risk of HIV from cuts made by a needle or sharp object (needlestick injury) with infected blood on it. However, the risk of ‘occupational exposure’, is very low in most countries.

If you think you have put yourself at risk of HIV, the only way to find out if you have HIV is to have an HIV test.



Though HIV isn’t curable, medication can definitely help reduce the damage that it can cause. Treatments will help you live longer and reduce your chances of passing HIV onto others. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is a mix of medicines that reduce the amount of HIV in your blood. ART works by keeping the level of HIV in your body low (your viral load). This lets your immune system recover and stay strong. With good healthcare and treatment, many people with HIV are living just as long as people who don’t have HIV. Effective treatment also means that some people living with HIV are achieving an undetectable viral load. This means that the virus exists in such small quantities in their blood that it does not affect their health and there is zero risk of transmitting the virus on to others. But remember that if you stop taking your medication then your viral load will go back up again. It is now recommended that people living with HIV start antiretroviral treatment straight away. ART medication is available in government ART Centres across the country. With proper prescription from the health professional, ART can also be purchased from some of the large pharmacies in the country.


Testing HIV

An HIV test is done by taking blood from the finger or arm, or by an oral swab. It generally takes 3 months or more for your body to create enough antibodies to test positive for HIV. This is dubbed the “window period.” So, if you get tested when you don’t have enough antibodies, you might test negative when you’re actually positive. During this period, you also have the highest chance of passing HIV onto others. The only way that you can absolutely be sure of whether you have HIV is to get tested! Getting tested is easy and quick. A lot of people who have HIV don’t know that they have it because symptoms typically don’t develop for years. Testing is critical if you’ve engaged in unprotected sex or if your partner is HIV positive. You should also get tested if you’ve gotten tattoos, piercings, or used drugs through needles. If you’re pregnant, you must get tested for HIV at the first prenatal visit. Testing is so important because it’s a way to have that sigh of relief that you don’t have HIV. If you do test positive, it’s best to find out in the early stages so you can get on medication and maintain your health. HIV symptoms might not show for a few years, which is why it’s so important for you to get tested. Getting tested means that you’re being responsible about sexual health, and it’s not something to be ashamed about.


What testing methods are available?

There are a variety of different HIV tests and your healthcare worker should explain which test you will be given and how you will get your result. Normally, testing involves taking a small sample of blood from either your finger or your arm, or a sample of oral fluid. How long an HIV test takes to give you an accurate result depends on the type of test you are taking. If you are taking a rapid test, you will be given your results within 20 minutes. Other types of tests will be sent to a laboratory and you may have to wait for the result which may take between a few days to a few weeks for you to receive a final result. In India, you can visit a lab or Integrated Counselling & Testing Centre in government hospitals.


How long should I wait to get a test for HIV?

If you visit a health professional within 72 hours of suspected infection, you may be prescribed PrEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) to prevent infection. PrEP is available in select medical stores in India. This is a course of emergency HIV treatment that will reduce your chances of being infected with HIV. You’ll be asked to come in for testing at a later date. If you’ve missed the window to take emergency HIV prevention, then most modern HIV tests are now able to detect HIV from around four weeks after exposure. Depending on the type of test you are offered and when your risk was, you may be asked to come back for further tests and a follow-up before a true result can be given. If you think you have been exposed to HIV, it is in this early stage of infection that you are most infectious to others. Be sure to be extra careful during this period – always use condoms and never share injecting equipment.

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