HIV and AIDS
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a sexually transmitted infection that damages the immune system and interferes with the body’s ability to fight off infections and diseases. Without proper disease management, HIV can progress to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), the most advanced stage of HIV infection.
While there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, research over the last several decades has led to the development of medications that can prevent the progression of HIV/AIDS and greatly improve quality of life for individuals who are HIV positive.
HIV Services – John T. Carey Special Immunology Unit
Since the John T. Carey Special Immunology Unit was first established in 1985, many advancements have been made in the area of HIV and AIDS. Today, HIV is no longer deemed a death sentence; people living with HIV now have a life expectancy near that of those without HIV, and medications when taken regularly can suppress the virus and prevent transmission to sexual partners.
The HIV epidemic is now getting under control in most parts of the world due to more readily available testing and better treatments. There is an estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV in the U.S. today.
How Is HIV Transmitted?
HIV can be spread through unprotected sexual contact with an infected person, especially if the infected person’s HIV is not under control through medication. It can also be transmitted through infected blood, and through the sharing of needles and syringes with an infected person. An infected mother with uncontrolled HIV can pass the virus to the fetus while pregnant or through breastfeeding.
HIV cannot be transmitted through sweat, saliva, tears or casual contact with an infected person, such as sharing food, drinks, utensils, towels or bedding.
What Are the Symptoms of HIV?
Some people may develop flu-like symptoms within a few weeks of contracting HIV, but about half of infected people do not experience any symptoms initially. These early symptoms often go away within a month or so and can often be missed or mistaken for another illness.
Many people may not experience symptoms for 10 years or more. During this period, the virus will continue to attack the immune system, causing a drop in CD4+T cells, not causing any symptoms. Once the immune system starts to break down, though, complications can occur.
Symptoms may include:
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Frequent fevers
- Frequent infections
- Lack of energy
- Recurrent diarrhea
- Short-term memory loss
- Skin rashes
- Weight loss
Left untreated, HIV can develop into AIDS within 8 to 10 years. But because of the advanced antiviral treatments available today, most people with HIV in the U.S. do not develop AIDS.
The CDC recommends that everyone get an HIV test at least once, and repeated annually if ongoing risk such as a new sexual partner. Because HIV can cause no symptoms for many years after infection, it is important to be tested for HIV at least once, and again if you are high risk or believe you have been exposed. A blood test can detect if the virus is present. Testing may not be positive until two to 12 weeks after exposure.
Treatment for HIV/AIDS
Treatment for HIV is most effective when it is detected early. Antiviral medications can stop the virus from damaging the body further and can even help to heal some of the earlier damage from the virus.
The newest HIV drugs keep the amount of virus in the blood at an undetectable level, preventing replication so the virus cannot develop resistance to the medicine and making it unable to be transmitted to others. Current HIV medications combine two or three drugs in one pill daily, instead of the complicated drug cocktail that was administered to patients in the earlier days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Researchers are also studying the use of longer-lasting injectable antivirals. Bimonthly injections are currently available, and injections given every six months are also being reviewed. These injections would eliminate the need for daily medications for HIV patients.
With consistent use of antiviral medications, HIV+ patients can enjoy a normal life with a normal life expectancy. The team at the John T. Carey Special Immunology Unit is helping patients achieve this goal every day. Our program provides specialized care to treat not only the virus, but to treat the patient as a whole and make sure they are optimizing their health and getting the support they need.