What is HIV?

What is HIV?

What is HIV?

HIV is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It attacks your body’s ability to fight illness and weakens your immune system, eventually leading to AIDS, the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Most people who acquire AIDS die from the disease or its complications.

HIV is spread through contact with 4 bodily fluids: blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. There are 3 ways that HIV can be transmitted: blood-to-blood contact (such as sharing a needle with someone who is HIV-positive); unprotected sex (oral, anal or vaginal) with a person who is HIV-positive; and from mother to child (before or during birth or from breastfeeding).

HIV is not spread through casual contact like hugging, shaking hands, sitting next to someone, sharing meals, using telephones or by being bitten by an insect. 

If you have questions or wish to learn more about how HIV is spread, call the Delaware AIDS Hotline at 800-422-0429, or visit our Links page for more resources.

How does HIV work? – The 4 Stages:

Stage 1: In the first stage, HIV infection is recent and usually occurs 2 – 8 weeks after the virus has been introduced to the body. During this time, a person may feel like they have the flu. The immune system is still able to fight back and symptoms may only last a few days up to 2 weeks.

Stage 2: In this stage, a person may look and feel perfectly healthy. Symptoms may not exist for another 8 – 10 years in some cases. However, the virus is still at work and damaging the immune system.

Stage 3: In Stage 3, a person begins experiencing symptoms that may include fever, night sweats, swollen lymph glands in the neck, underarm or groin area, upper respiratory infections, fatigue, diarrhea, rapid weight loss, decreased appetite, vaginal or oral yeast infections, white spots in the mouth or rashes. HIV can also cause damage to a person’s nervous system, making them forget things easily and/or confused. These symptoms are persistent and may last anywhere from several weeks up to several years. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms for more than a week, you should see a healthcare provider. While these may be signs of other illnesses, it is very important to seek medical advice.

Stage 4: In the final stage, HIV has severely damaged the immune system, leaving a person’s body vulnerable to infection and disease. AIDS has now fully developed. In some cases, this does not occur for more than 10 years after infection, especially with the help of treatment. It is also important that a person’s AIDS status be diagnosed and confirmed by a medical professional.

With the body weakened by AIDS, other infections such as tuberculosis (TB), invasive cervical cancer, PCP (AIDS-related pneumonia), wasting syndrome, candida/thrush, CMV retinitis, Kaposi’s sarcoma and toxoplasmosis can simultaneously occur.

About Treatment

An early HIV diagnosis and steady treatment can help a person live a full, active life. Currently, there is no cure for HIV infection or for AIDS. But new treatments are working to battle the virus and prolong the lives of those infected. You can talk to your healthcare provider to learn more and decide what’s best for you.

Know the Risks, Prevent the Disease

HIV affects all walks of life – anyone can get it. Of course, some forms of behavior are riskier than others. That’s why it is important to know the risks as well as the ways to prevent HIV. The safest ways to prevent HIV are abstinence (not having sex), not injecting drugs or sharing needles, and for pregnant women, inquiring about treatments during pregnancy.

  • Practicing safer sex through the use of latex condoms or polyurethane condoms will help reduce the spread of HIV. Use a new condom every time, and a water-based lubricant for vaginal and anal sex.
  • Using oil products such as petroleum jelly or body lotion with latex condoms can cause the condom to break.
  • Condoms should never be reused.
  • If you do inject drugs, do not share your equipment and only use needles and syringes that are new and have been sterilized.

HIV testing is widely available. Most test centers are able to process your results within a few weeks and provide counseling to handle your concerns and answer questions. To find out how and where to get tested in Delaware, click here.
The Delaware HIV Consortium acknowledges the following organizations for their services in making the information provided on this page possible: Delaware Division of Public Health, and Channing Bete Company, from their publication, “HIV and AIDS – What You Need to Know.”

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