HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention efforts have improved vastly over the past several decades. People can now live healthy, vibrant lives with the virus, and they can even reach standard life expectancies.
HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus, and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a stage of that viral infection. An HIV infection attacks the body's CD4 cells (T-cells), which are an important part of the immune system. As the virus destroys more of these cells, it weakens the immune system's ability to defend against infection and disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes an HIV infection has having three stages. The first stage is acute infection, which occurs in the early weeks after exposure. The infected person is highly contagious and might experience some flu-like symptoms. The second stage is clinical latency, in which the virus reproduces at a much slower rate. If properly treated with daily medication, this stage could last for decades. The third stage is the development of AIDS. In this stage, the immune system is severely weakened and unable to fend off many infections or diseases. There is currently no cure for HIV but with proper care, it can be controlled.
HIV treatment should begin immediately after diagnosis and, ideally, as soon after infection as possible. Treatment protocols focus on antiretroviral treatment (ART), which hinders the virus's ability to replicate itself. There are several different classes of ART medication, each of which limits virus reproduction in a specific way, such as blocking entry into the T-cell or disabling one or more of the proteins the virus uses to replicate itself. These medications are used in combination to prevent HIV from developing strains that are resistant to a single drug.
Treatment can be very effective in helping someone with HIV maintain their health, but they will have to take medication every day, and in some cases, at specific times during the day. These treatments may also cause side effects such as digestive issues, heart disease, unbalanced blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and weakened bones and muscles.
Adequate HIV prevention starts with understanding how the virus is spread. There are four ways the HIV virus can be contracted:
- Unprotected sex: You can contract the virus if the blood, semen, or vaginal secretions of an infected partner enter your body during sex.
- Pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding: An infected mother can spread HIV to the fetus during pregnancy or to the baby during delivery. Breast milk can also transmit the virus.
- Sharing needles: You can become infected if you use a needle or syringe that has been contaminated with infected blood.
- Blood transfusions: The virus can be spread if infected blood is used for a blood transfusion.
According to AIDS.gov, there are two drugs currently in use to help high-risk populations reduce the likelihood of contracting the virus: pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). PrEP is a medication that helps prevent the virus from taking hold if you're exposed. This medication is primarily for those who have an ongoing risk of exposure. PEP is prescribed in emergency situations after an exposure and must be taken within three days.
There's significant ongoing research seeking more effective options for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. A vaccine is currently in trial and being tested for its effectiveness in terms of preventing HIV infections. Microbicides are also being studied as an option to prevent sexual transmission of the virus.
Coping with an HIV infection or its potential can be stressful. The best way to reduce the likelihood of infection is to avoid at-risk behaviors, such as sharing needles or engaging in unprotected sex with people who may be infected. If you do become infected with the virus, know that there are treatment options available and contact your doctor immediately.