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What Is Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection?

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). This virus attacks the immune (infection-fighting) system and destroys white blood cells called lymphocytes. People who are infected with HIV are HIV positive (HIV+). However, blood tests may be negative if done very early after being infected. After several months or years of being HIV+, AIDS may develop, when the immune system is very weak.

Over 30 million people are infected with HIV worldwide.

What Causes HIV Infection?

HIV is usually caught from sexual activity (opposite or same sex) partners, contact with bodily fluids (including semen and vaginal secretions), use of an infected needle, or from blood transfusion. It may also be passed from an infected mother to her unborn child. People cannot get infected by casual contact such as holding hands, drinking from a water fountain, or contact with a toilet seat.

What Are the Symptoms of HIV Infection?

People may at first have no symptoms, but 1 to 6 weeks after infection, many have flu-like symptoms. These may include body aches, fatigue, fever, headache, nausea, and rash. After these symptoms, most people may not have any others for several months or years until the virus significantly weakens the immune system. Then they get infections that can involve lungs, eyes, or skin and can be life threatening. Other symptoms may be diarrhea, fatigue, fever, loss of appetite and weight, memory loss, mouth sores, night sweats, skin cancer, swollen glands, and trouble thinking.

How Is HIV Infection Diagnosed?

The health care provider makes a diagnosis from a medical history, physical examination, and blood tests.

How Is HIV Infection Treated?

Treatment depends on the stage of infection. An infectious disease specialist will prescribe medicine to strengthen the immune system and fight the virus. Blood tests must be done often to see how well the medicines work. Life-long medicine will be needed.

Other medicines may be needed for loss of appetite. A nutritionist will help plan a healthy diet.

Exposure to other infections should be avoided. Support groups can help people deal with HIV. Activities aren’t restricted, but rest and eating well are important. To avoid exposing others to HIV infection, use condoms and don’t donate blood or sperm.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing HIV Infection:

  • DO follow your doctor’s directions.
  • DO practice safe sex. Use latex condoms. Tell your partners about being HIV+ so that they can be tested.
  • DO avoid people who have infections.
  • DO eat a healthy diet and get enough sleep and exercise.
  • DO get help for the emotional stress of being HIV+.
  • DO tell your health care provider if you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy.
  • DO call your health care provider if you have signs of infection (fever, rash, cough, diarrhea, skin lesions).
  • DO call your health care provider right away or go to the emergency room if you have a severe headache, fever, cough, severe diarrhea or vomiting, or bad stomach pain or if bright lights bother you.
  • DON’T donate blood, sperm, or organs.
  • DON’T stop taking your medicine or change your dosage because you feel better unless your health care provider tells you to.
  • DON’T have unprotected sex.
  • DON’T abuse alcohol, use drugs, or share needles.
  • DON’T eat foods such as raw eggs, raw oysters, or unpasteurized milk that may contain harmful bacteria.

Contact the following sources:

  • World Health Organization
  • American Social Health Association
    Tel: (800) 227-8922
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    Tel: (800) 232-4636

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

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