Knowing HIV

It’s easy to get weighed down with facts and stats when it comes to HIV, but there are a few pieces of information which we think are definitely worth knowing. Not only will they educate you, they’ll also enable you to make smarter choices when it comes to your sex life.

What is HIV?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) attacks the human immune system and destroys its function to fight off infection and illness. Over time, especially if HIV is left untreated, the virus will spread throughout the body bringing HIV to its most advanced stage – which is known as AIDS.

What is AIDS?

AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) stems from HIV and is HIV in its most advanced state. A person is diagnosed with AIDS when their immune system is so damaged from HIV that it becomes very hard to fight off infection – including common, usually mild infections such as a cold.

How is HIV transmitted?

Anyone and everyone can contract HIV/AIDS through the following ways:

  1. Unprotected sex with an infected person (oral, vaginal or anal sex without a condom)
  2. Blood to blood contact with HIV infected blood
  3. Sharing needles with an infected person (for drugs, tattoos etc)
  4. From an infected mother to her child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.

How HIV affects your body

HIV attacks the human immune system and destroys its ability to fight off infection and illness.

  • HIV infects cells in the immune system and the central nervous system.
  • HIV infects what are called T helper cells – these cells play a big role in the immune system, as they coordinate the actions of the other immune system cells.
  • Once it has found its way into a cell, HIV produces new copies of itself, which can then go on to infect other cells.
  • When there is a large reduction in T helper cells your immune system becomes very weak.
  • Over time, HIV infection leads to a severe reduction in the number of T helper cells available to help fight disease.

Remember – If you feel you may have been exposed to HIV, go and consult your doctor as soon as possible.

The 4 stages of HIV

HIV infection can generally be broken down into four distinct stages: Firstly there is the primary infection which is also known as Acute Retroviral Syndrome, (ARS) – read more about this below.

Then comes the Clinically Asymptomatic Stage which lasts for an average of ten years after infection, during this time there are unlikely to be any symptoms.

The Symptomatic HIV Infection is the third stage. This stage occurs when the immune system becomes severely damaged by HIV and as the immune system fails, symptoms begin to develop. Symptoms are initially mild but as the immune system deteriorates, symptoms get progressively worse.

The final stage of HIV is the progression from HIV to AIDS. As the immune system becomes more and more damaged the illnesses that occur become more and more severe leading eventually to an AIDS diagnosis.

Acute Retroviral Syndrome (ARS)

When you have been exposed to HIV you may not experience any symptoms at all – however a large percentage of people will experience something similar to mild flu – this usually occurs after around 2 weeks. This stage is called Acute Retroviral Syndrome, (ARS). Symptoms of ARS include enlarged glands in the neck, armpit and groin, nausea, body rashes, diarrhoea, night sweats and headaches.

While these symptoms may disappear soon after showing up, the HIV virus will remain in your body. During this period you are highly infectious to your sexual partners so you should NOT engage in any unprotected sexual activity.

Remember, the symptoms of ARS are very similar to those experienced with other less serious infections such as a viral infection or mild flu. Just because you are experiencing them, it does not mean you are infected with HIV. However, If you feel you may have been experiencing ARS and have been exposed to HIV, it is highly recommended that you consult your doctor.

Even though HIV cannot be cured, there is treatment available that can effectively manage the virus allowing you to live a relatively long and normal life.

HIV and treatment

While there is no cure for HIV, you can prolong your life by taking antiretroviral (ARV) therapy. This stops HIV from multiplying inside your body. It allows the body’s immune cells to rebuild and provide better protection for the body against infections.

When the treatment reduces HIV to a certain level, HIV tests will no longer be able to detect HIV in the body – this term is called “undetectable”. It is important to note that even if you have an “undetectable”

HIV prevention

It is important to keep on top of your HIV status. If you are HIV positive, it is important to know so that you can look after yourself and take measures to protect yourself and those you are having sex with. If you are negative it is important to ensure that you take the appropriate measures to stay negative.

When it comes to sexual activity, the use of condoms correctly each and every time you have sex is the most effective form of HIV prevention.

When entering a new relationship you should avoid unprotected sex for the first 3 months and then both get tested. After 3 months you will get an accurate test result and then be able to make an informed decision about condom use going forward.

It’s important to note however that if either partner is unfaithful, you could still be at risk. If you have doubts, insist on condoms.

It’s important to educate yourself about the issues that surround HIV so you can make educated decisions around your sexual behaviour. Knowledge is power and talking about the issues and behaviours openly with your peers can be the difference between someone getting HIV and protecting themselves.

Avoiding sharing needles and any other form of blood to blood contact with other people takes away the risk of coming into contact with infected blood.

Lastly, getting tested and knowing your status can be empowering and allows you to ensure you are not putting yourself and your partner at risk of infection.

Sex with someone who is HIV+

HIV doesn’t define a person. You could be HIV positive or HIV negative and have a healthy sexual relationship with someone who is HIV positive – just look at Tyler and Angelikah’s relationship in the show…

Whether you’re in a discordant relationship (one person is positive, one is negative) – or you’re both negative, you still have to keep the sex fun and safe. It might make you nervous the first time – but then so does any first sexual encounter. So long as you’re using protection, i.e. a condom correctly each and every time you have sex, you’re doing your best to protect each other…

If you’re both positive, it’s equally important to use condoms so that you don’t cause re-infection – yes, even if you already have HIV, you can become infected with a different strain of HIV which could be extra damaging to your immune system and make it harder for medication to work effectively.

If you’re going to have oral sex with a HIV positive partner, use a condom or dental dam (a thin piece of latex for female oral sex) each time. Although unprotected oral sex is low risk – there is still a risk – this risk increases if there are open cuts or sore on the mouth or genitals. Brushing your teeth or flossing before oral sex may also increase the risk as it can cause bleeding gums.

Sex is better when both partners are honest, comfortable and relaxed in the situation, it might help to talk to your partner about your status before you have sex – in some countries it is the law to do so. In other countries, this is a decision only you can make.
Remember – regardless of someone’s HIV status, use a condom every time!

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