Understanding HIV

HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system. It specifically targets a subset of white blood cells known as T cells. Over time, the damage to the immune system makes it increasingly difficult for the body to fight off infections and other diseases. According to the World Health Organization, 37 million people are living with HIV. About 16 million people received treatment for HIV in 2015.

If it’s left untreated, HIV can progress to AIDS, also known as stage 3 HIV. Many people with HIV won’t go on to develop stage 3 HIV. In people who have stage 3 HIV, the immune system is highly compromised. This makes it easier for opportunistic infections and cancers to take over and lead to deteriorating health. People who have stage 3 HIV and don’t receive treatment for it typically survive three years.

Although a dry cough is a common symptom of HIV, it isn’t reason enough for concern. The occasional dry cough can occur for a variety of reasons. For example, a cough can occur due to sinusitis, acid reflux, or even a reaction to cold air.

You should see your doctor if your cough persists. They can determine if there are any underlying causes. Your doctor will conduct a comprehensive exam, which may include a chest X-ray to identify the cause. If you have risk factors for HIV, your doctor may suggest an HIV test.

Other early symptoms of HIV include:

  • flu-like symptoms, such as a fever above 100.4°F (38°C), chills, or muscle pain
  • swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck and armpit
  • nausea
  • decreased appetite
  • a rash on the neck, face, or upper chest
  • ulcers

Some people may not experience any symptoms in the early stages. Others may only experience one or two symptoms.

As the virus progresses, the immune system weakens. People with more advanced HIV may experience the following:

HIV spreads through bodily fluids, including:

  • blood
  • breast milk
  • vaginal fluids
  • rectal fluids
  • pre-seminal fluid
  • semen

HIV is transmitted when one of these bodily fluids gets into your blood. This can happen through direct injection, or through a break in the skin or a mucous membrane. Mucous membranes are found in the opening of the penis, vagina, and rectum.

People most commonly transmit HIV through one of these methods:

  • having oral, vaginal, or anal sex not protected by condoms
  • sharing or reusing needles when injecting drugs or getting a tattoo
  • during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding (though many women living with HIV are able to have healthy, HIV-negative babies by getting good prenatal care)

HIV isn’t present in sweat, saliva, or urine. You can’t transmit the virus to someone by touching them or touching a surface they touched.

HIV can affect anyone regardless of their:

  • ethnicity
  • sexual orientation
  • race
  • age
  • gender identity

Certain groups do have a greater risk of contracting HIV than others.

This includes:

  • people who have sex without condoms
  • people who have another sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • people who use injection drugs
  • men who have sex with men

Being in one or more of these groups doesn’t mean you’ll get HIV. Your risk is largely determined by your behavior.

Your doctor can only diagnose HIV through proper blood testing. The most common method is the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). This test measures the antibodies present in your blood. If HIV antibodies are detected, you can take a second test to confirm a positive result. This second test is called an immunoassay. If your second test also produces a positive result, then your doctor will consider you to be HIV-positive.

It’s possible to test negative for HIV after exposure to the virus. This is because your body doesn’t produce antibodies immediately after exposure to the virus. If you’ve contracted the virus, these antibodies will not be present for four to six weeks after exposure. This period is sometimes referred to as the “window period.” If you receive a negative result and think you’ve been exposed to the virus, you should get tested again in four to six weeks.

If you test positive for HIV, you have options. Though HIV isn’t currently curable, it’s often controllable with the use of antiretroviral therapy. When you take it correctly, this medication can improve your quality of life and prevent the onset of stage 3 HIV.

In addition to taking your medication, it’s important to talk to your doctor regularly, and let them know about any changes in your symptoms. You should also tell previous and potential sex partners that you have HIV.

People generally spread HIV through sexual contact. If you’re sexually active, you can reduce your risk of contracting or spreading the virus by doing the following:

  • Know your status. If you’re sexually active, get tested regularly for HIV and other STIs.
  • Know your partner’s HIV status. Talk to your sexual partners about their status before engaging in sexual activity.
  • Use protection. Using a condom correctly each time you have oral, vaginal, or anal sex can greatly reduce the risk of transmission.
  • Consider fewer sex partners. If you have multiple sex partners, you’re more likely to have a partner with HIV or another STI. This can increase your risk of contracting HIV.
  • Take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP comes in the form of a daily antiretroviral pill. Everyone at increased risk of HIV should take this medication, according to a recommendation from the US Preventive Services Task Force.

If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV, you can ask your doctor for post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). This medication can reduce your risk of contracting the virus after possible exposure. For best results, you must use it within 72 hours of potential exposure.