HIV/AIDS: Symptoms, Causes, Risks, Complications, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention and Prognosis

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A blood test of HIV

1Overview

Over the past years, the rates of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infections have increased dramatically. HIV is a sexually-transmitted disease that can be spread through contact with an infected person through blood, from the mother to child during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and childbirth.

If HIV infection is left untreated, it may lead to a more serious, chronic and potentially life-threatening condition called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The virus changes and damages the body’s immune system, making it hard for the body to ward off and fight the organisms that cause illness.

The HIV attacks the CD4 cells of the immune system. These cells are responsible for protecting the body from certain pathogens. The decrease of these important cells makes it hard for the body to combat infections and some cancers. The mortality rate of people with HIV and AIDS is linked to various life-threatening infections.

Approximately 36.7 million people across the globe live with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2015. Out of these individuals, 1.8 million are below the age of 15. About 2.1 million people were new cases of HIV in 2015 alone, and most of them are children from the sub-Saharan Africa who were infected by their mothers during pregnancy, breastfeeding or childbirth.

The alarming fact is, only 60 percent of HIV-positive people are aware they’re infected.
The remaining 40 percent are not aware of their HIV status, hence, still practice unsafe sex practices.

Today, there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS, but people can protect themselves from the infection, and innovative drugs help slow the progression of the disease.

2Symptoms

Some individuals get flu-like symptoms within a month after being first infected. However, these symptoms go away within one month. The symptoms of HIV and AIDS depend on the phase of infection. During primary infection or acute HIV, right after being infected,
the signs and symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Muscle pain
  • Fever
  • Sore Throat
  • Rash (Shingles)
  • Inflamed lymph glands, usually in the neck

A primary infection lasts for just an average of one month after being infected.
However, the disease may go unnoticed for years and sometimes, decades, because the infection reaches the latent phase. When the virus has spread throughout the body,
the HIV infection may progress into AIDS, which is the severe complication of HIV and usually causes the death of patients.

Signs and symptoms that signal the progression of the disease to AIDS:

  • Fever that won’t go away
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Feeling sick all the time
  • Night sweating
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Inflamed lymph glands, usually in the neck, groin or underarms
  • Yeast infections in the mouth
  • Recurrent infections
  • Chronic diarrhea

3Causes

The human immunodeficiency virus causes HIV/AIDS. Most cases of HIV are caused by having sex with a person who has HIV without using a condom. People with HIV can pass the virus to other people even if they do not feel any symptoms.

People can acquire the virus through contact with infected body fluids including blood, semen, vaginal fluids, pre-seminal fluids, rectal fluid and breast milk.

For mothers with HIV infection, they can spread the virus to their child during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. This is termed as mother-to-child transmission.

People can’t get HIV infection by shaking hands and close contact like hugging others. Moreover, the virus can’t spread through saliva, air, and insect bites.

Sexual Contact

Most people who are diagnosed with HIV and AIDS got the virus through unprotected vaginal or anal sex. The virus can also spread through unprotected oral sex. However, the risk is lower compared to others. The virus can spread to another person through oral sex if the person giving oral sex has sores, bleeding gums, and mouth ulcers. Moreover, the risk is higher if the person receiving oral sex has just recently been infected with HIV and has high levels of the virus in their body.

Other Risky Behaviors

Risky behaviors may increase the chances of being infected, including:

  • Sharing sex toys
  • Sharing needles, syringes and other equipment used for injecting
  • Healthcare workers pricked by HIV0infected needles during work
  • Blood transfusions

How the virus infects the body:

The HIV targets the immune system and results in the progressive damage of the body’s defense against other infections.

Upon infection, the HIV infects the CD4 cells. The virus attaches itself to CD4 lymphocyte cells, which are responsible for protecting the body against various pathogens like viruses and bacteria.

Once attached, the virus enters the cells and replicate itself. Some of the copies of the virus leave the CD4 cells, which kill them. The cycle goes on and on until the number of CD4 cells drops and become unable to ward off infections.

The process takes up to ten years. This means that people can become asymptomatic during this time, making him or her unaware that they’re infected. As a result, they continue engaging in risky sexual behaviors, leading to the surging numbers of HIV infections worldwide. Thus, early testing and diagnosis are vital to reduce the transmission of the virus and initiate the treatment to prevent the disease’s progression to AIDS.

4Risk Factors

At first, the HIV rates were mainly due to men having sex with men. However, recent cases also showed HIV transmission through heterosexual sex. Anyone can contract HIV infection, but the risk is higher for people who are:

  • Men who have unprotected sex with men
  • Women who have unprotected sex with men, who had experienced having sex with men
  • People engaging in chem-sex, a new term used to describe a behavior where drugs are used to boost sexual pleasure. This may lead to risky behaviors.
  • People who are sexually active and promiscuous
  • People who inject drugs
  • People who engage in unprotected sex with a person who lived or has been to countries and locations with high rates of HIV infection in Africa.
  • People with a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • People who received blood transfusion in developing countries

5Complications

HIV infection damages the immune system, making the patient more likely to acquire other infections and some cancers. Opportunistic infections (OIs) are the most common ones that capitalize on weakened immune systems.

For people with healthy immune systems, OIs are easily managed and controlled. However, people with HIV have weakened immune systems, making them highly susceptible to various infections.

Infections

  • Tuberculosis (TB)
  • Candidiasis
  • Cryptococcal meningitis
  • Cytomegalovirus
  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Cryptosporidiosis
  • Herpes simplex and herpes zoster
  • Histoplasmosis
  • Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP)\
  • Pneumonia

Cancers

Other complications

  • Wasting syndrome
  • Neurological complications
  • Kidney disease
  • Cervical Cancer 

6Diagnosis

Early diagnosis of HIV/AIDS is crucial. If a person tests positive for the virus, the doctor will recommend a treatment plant to help fight the HIV and prevent it from progressing to AIDS. Early testing is also important to help curb the spread of the virus through risky behaviors.

Tests for HIV/AIDS

Home Test Kits

There is a home test kit approved by the US Food and Drug Administration –the Home Access Express Test.

ELISA test

The name stands for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. This test is used to detect an ongoing HIV infection. Usually, if the ELISA test is positive, the doctor will recommend another confirmatory test called Western blot test.

Western Blot test

This test is very sensitive and can confirm a positive ELISA test.

Viral load test

This is a test used to measure the amount of the virus in the blood. It is used to monitor if the medicines are working. It can also determine an early HIV infection when the virus is abundant in the bloodstream.

Saliva Test

This test is used to detect the virus. A cotton swab is used to get saliva from the mouth, inside the cheeks.

7Treatment

Today, there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS, but there are drugs that are used in combination for virus control. The treatments available are designed to reduce the virus in the body and keep the immune system as healthy as possible.

Medicines

  • Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs) – NNRTIs disable a protein that is important for HIV replication.
  • Protease inhibitors (PIs) – These are drugs that interfere with virus replication.
  • Nucleoside or nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) – They interrupt with viral replication. These are faulty versions of building blocks needed by the virus to duplicate.
  • Integrase inhibitors – These drugs block or disable integrase, an important protein the HIV needs to insert its genetic material into the CD4 cells.
  • Entry or fusion inhibitors – Fusion inhibitors prevent the HIV from entering CD4 cells.

8Prevention

There is still no vaccine to prevent HIV infection. However, people can take steps to protect themselves from the virus.

  • Get tested for HIV and know your partners HIV status.
  • Practice safe sex by using condoms and having one sexual partner.
  • Get tested and treated for STIs.
  • Avoid risky sex.
  • Talk with your health care professional for testing.
  • Use clean needles.
  • If you’re a health care professional, make sure you wear gloves or protective equipment when handling blood and other body fluids.
  • If you’re pregnant, get tested right away and talk with your doctor.

9Prognosis

HIV has no cure. However, because of modern medicine and the presence of HIV drugs, the outlook for this condition has gotten better. However, there are still long-term effects of HIV including:

  • Fast aging
  • Lipid levels abnormalities
  • Cancer
  • Inflammation-related complications
  • Cognitive impairment

AIDS, on the other hand, occurs when HIV is not managed. This may lead to a weakened immune system, making the patient susceptible to various life-threatening infections.
The life expectancy of people with AIDS varies from one person to another.