Virus attacks cells that protect body from infection and disease

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) spreads through bodily fluids and attacks the body’s immune system, particularly the T cells. These are white blood cells that play a key role in protecting the body from infection and disease. If left untreated, HIV can destroy so many T cells that the body is left vulnerable to infection, disease and cancer. This advanced stage of HIV infection and severely weakened immune system is called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Without treatment, AIDS is fatal.

Thanks to advances in medicine, however, most people in developed countries who are diagnosed with HIV are able to receive treatment that prevents disease progression and also limits HIV transmission.

HIV is commonly transmitted through unprotected sex (vaginal or anal) and exchange of bodily fluids, including semen, pre-seminal fluid, vaginal fluid, rectal fluids, and blood. Aside from sex, the virus is spread through sharing of needles (intravenous drug users), and mothers passing it on to children during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

Stages, symptoms and diagnosis of HIV

There are three distinct stages of HIV, although most people treated in the United States never reach the advanced stage. If you are treated for HIV early and you regularly take your medications, you can live a long and healthy life.

The first stage is acute HIV infection. This is within the first two to four weeks of infection with the virus, during which time you may have no symptoms, or you may experience severe flu-like symptoms, such as:

  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Joint pain or muscle aches
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen glands

During this time, HIV is highly transmittable because of the amount of the virus in your system. If you are aware of being infected or suspect you may have been, be sure to see a doctor right away to get tested. You can also take precautions during this stage, such as practicing safer sex or not having sexual contact, or not participating in any behaviors that put others at risk.

The next stage is called clinical latency or chronic HIV infection. During this period, the virus continues to reproduce slowly and you may not have any or very few symptoms at all. If left untreated, your disease will continue to progress. However, most people are treated for HIV with antiretroviral drugs and can live well with chronic HIV for many years. During this time, the virus can still be transmitted to others but the amount of virus in the body is less than during the early stage of the disease.

The final and most advanced stage is AIDS. This is when your immune system has been so badly damaged by the virus that your body can no longer defend itself from common illnesses and other types of diseases and infections. Without treatment, a person’s life expectancy may be three years or less depending on lifestyle and other factors. In developing countries such as the United States, most people with HIV do not progress to having full-blown AIDS because of the availability of antiretroviral medication.

Diagnosis and treatment of HIV

The only way to diagnose HIV is with a blood test. A test will not indicate HIV, but will show positive for the specific antibodies that fight against the virus. If you are diagnosed with HIV, your doctor will explain what the results mean and help you understand your options for treatment. HIV is commonly treated with a combination of lifestyle and behavior changes as well as medications, including antiretrovirals to slow the virus down and keep it under control. For people who are HIV-negative but are concerned about exposure, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is commonly prescribed as a daily preventive medication.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.