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What is it?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. HIV is the virus, whereas AIDS is the disease that can develop after contracting HIV. This virus harms the body by eliminating cells that fight against infection, and therefore puts the infected person in danger of other illnesses, which may be able to progress more quickly due to lowered immune function. HIV/AIDS cannot be cured, but modern medicine can control it and allow for a higher quality and length of life than ever before. Many people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS who have access to healthcare resources can live healthy and minimally impacted lives with the right treatment. Of course, it is still expected and acceptable to feel scared or confused after a HIV diagnosis, but talking to your doctor and a mental health professional about these feelings is the first step towards coming to terms with living HIV-positive. If untreated, HIV may eventually progress into AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), the last stage of the disease. This means that the immune system has lowered to a certain measurable point (determined by a low level of “protective” cells or the presence of certain “opportunistic” infections). Not everyone with HIV will develop AIDS.

How did I get it?

When infections first began appearing in the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s, many people wrongly assumed only gay men were prone to the disease. The truth is that ANYONE is susceptible to HIV, even people who are not sexually active. HIV is spread by contact with infected bodily fluids, such as semen, blood, breastmilk, and vaginal/anal fluids. You can contract it through anal, vaginal, or oral sex, sharing needles, other tools that cut the skin (think tattoo equipment), and unclean sex toys, as well as from a mother to their baby (it can be contracted during childbirth or nursing). You cannot get it by touching, kissing, or from using toilets, etc.

While there is negative stigma associated with all STD/STIs, in the case of HIV/AIDS, homophobia, ignorance, and the virus’s history can compound the discrimination faced by someone living with HIV or AIDS. This stigma can compound unnecessary distress for those who are HIV-positive, who are likely already distressed about the potential health impacts of the virus. Keep this in mind when discussing it, especially if you are talking to someone with a positive diagnosis.

What are the symptoms?

Early symptoms of HIV are mild and sometimes do not occur at all. At most, people may experience flu-like symptoms or a rash in the days following exposure to the virus. The only way to know for sure is a blood test. Note, however, that it takes about 3 months after the initial exposure for a test to be completely accurate. The virus progresses in stages, and the durations of these stages are different for each person. In the first 2-4 weeks, called the “acute” stage, people may experience fever, swollen lymph nodes, muscle aches, or other flu-like symptoms. The virus is highly contagious during this period. After the first month or so, one enters the “clinical” stage, during which they are much less contagious and often do not feel sick. Access to HIV/AIDS medication can be costly, but those taking medication during this phase are much less likely to transmit the disease to others than those who are not using medicine or using it incorrectly. This period can last anywhere from a few years to multiple decades. The last and most severe stage of the disease is AIDS. During this phase, serious “opportunistic” infections will occur due to a marked weakening of the immune system. Often, a person with AIDS will lose weight and have frequent fevers, chills, or swollen lymph nodes in addition to general feelings of unwellness or weakness. Once again, due to effective medication strategies, some people may never reach this stage of the disease.

What do I do when the test comes back positive?

Receiving an HIV-positive diagnosis may feel scary. It’s important to try to address the reason you became infected (sexual activity, needle use, etc.), as this will help you contact anyone who may need to get tested as well. Your doctor will most likely encourage you to discuss the diagnosis with any past partners. You can do this yourself, online, or through your healthcare provider’s office (see “Talking to Partners” section). There are medications, called anti-retrovirals, that help prevent transmission and progression of the virus, so with disclosure and protective measures, it is very possible to maintain a normal sex life. There is every reason to think you will live a long, healthy life, especially as access to HIV/AIDS medication grows. After a positive test, speak with your healthcare provider immediately. With their help, you can decide when to start treatment and what individualized treatment plans are best for you. This depends on an “HIV baseline evaluation”, where your healthcare provider will take more labs to determine how far the HIV has progressed and what medicines will be most effective. Once you begin treatment, it is important to take medicine exactly as prescribed, for your own health and the health of any sexual partners. If there are any barriers to this, you should be ready to discuss this with your healthcare provider during your visit. Remember there are many people living with HIV, probably even someone you know. Support groups, individual therapy, and other mental health counseling venues are always a great option.

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