First and foremost, there is a distinction between HIV and AIDS. Most people think of them as one and the same; however, they are two separate entities. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, whereas AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS is a disease, while HIV is the virus that causes the disease. Testing positive for HIV does not mean you have AIDS. HIV attacks T-cells, which are like the infantry of an army, the army being your immune system. T-cells fight all sorts of infections and if T-cells are inhibited, infections will invade and thrive in your body, resulting in the diagnosis of AIDS.
Who Gets HIV?
There are many ways to contract HIV and many ways not to contract it too. You cannot catch it by hugging an infected person, holding hands or being in an enclosed area with a person who has HIV. You can contract HIV by having unprotected sexual relations with an infected person. HIV is not visible, so in the absence of a blood test showing negative results, there is no way of knowing whether someone is HIV positive.
Other Means of Transmission
HIV is a problem among intravenous drug abusers who share needles. HIV can be transmitted during the process of blood transfusions if the blood supply is infected with the virus. Since 1985 the American blood supply has been screened for HIV and is considered safe. Pregnant women who are infected with the virus can pass it on to their children as the baby passes through the birth canal. Mothers can infect their infant children via their breast milk, so breastfeeding is contraindicated for HIV-positive mothers.
There are no telltale symptoms of HIV infection. In other words, if you acquire the virus, you won’t feel any different. Some patients may experience flu-like symptoms shortly after being exposed to HIV, but these symptoms pass quickly and it can take years for HIV to affect you. Sickness eventually occurs in the form of swollen lymph nodes (glands), frequent transient fevers, diarrhea, mouth sores and fatigue. As the virus replicates and attack more and more of your T-cells, life-threatening opportunistic infections such as pneumonia and certain rare forms of cancer take advantage of the body's weakened immune system and establish themselves in the patient. Regular testing for HIV is the only way to know whether you have HIV early in the course of the illness.
Testing positive for HIV is not an immediate death sentence. Former NBA basketball star Magic Johnson is a case in point. Before the start of the 1990-1991 basketball season, Johnson announced to his teammates and fans that he was HIV positive. Despite this, Johnson went on with his career and became an activist for AIDS awareness upon his retirement from the NBA. There is no cure for HIV, but there are many treatments that help people live with disease for longer periods of time. Early detection is the most important tool in the fight against HIV and changes in lifestyle are the best defense.
Safe sex and safe handling of infected bodily fluids in the health care setting are the main defenses against the spread of HIV. HIV can only be contracted through the exchange of bodily fluids. Education is critical to the prevention of HIV.