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HIV and AIDS: causes, symptoms, prevention, and treatment

September 13, 2021 • read

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HIV and AIDS: causes, symptoms, prevention, and treatment

Learning that you’re HIV positive can be devastating, but with proper treatment, you can live a long and healthy life. There are a number of drugs available to help you manage your health and infection status. In spite of that, there are some real health concerns that come with the diagnosis. Here’s everything you need to know about the causes, symptoms, and treatment of HIV and AIDS, and how to prevent infection in the first place.

What’s the difference between HIV and AIDS?

You often see or hear HIV and AIDS mentioned together, but they’re not interchangeable terms. To help clear up the confusion between the two, it’s useful to know what each stands for. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, meaning it’s a virus that attacks your immune system. If you have HIV and don’t treat it, it eventually weakens your immune system and progresses to late-stage HIV infection. This is the disease called AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. With proper treatment, you can live a long life in good health as an HIV-positive person, and you may never develop AIDS. Without treatment, however, HIV usually progresses to AIDS within 10-15 years. If left untreated, AIDS is usually fatal within two years

How do you get HIV/AIDS?

HIV is both a bloodborne and sexually transmitted infection (STI). Because of this, there are a few different ways of getting it. Mothers with HIV can transmit the virus to their children in utero or later while breastfeeding, which is called perinatal HIV transmission. Because doctors offer HIV screening to pregnant women in Canada, perinatal transmission accounts for a very small number of new HIV cases here.

Injection drug use is one of the major pathways of infection for HIV in Canada — data shows that approximately 10% of people who inject drugs (PWID) are HIV positive. While PWIDs are 59 times more likely to get HIV than those who don’t use injection drugs, however, sharing needles isn’t the only way HIV spreads.

Unprotected sex is the primary driver of HIV transmission in Canada, and around the world. Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (gbMSM) make up just over 50% of HIV cases in Canada. They also accounted for just over 50% of new HIV infections in 2018 (the most recent year for which there is data), despite making up only 3-4% of the adult male population. GbMSM who engage in unprotected sex may have a higher risk of contracting HIV because it spreads through both blood and semen. This makes activities like unprotected anal sex much riskier. But gbMSM aren’t the only individuals at risk of contracting HIV sexually. Heterosexual sex accounted for just over 33% of new HIV cases in Canada in 2018. 

What are the symptoms of HIV?

The primary or acute phase of HIV starts about two to four weeks after infection. While some people have no symptoms, 90% of newly infected individuals experience flu-like symptoms, and/or rashes or fever lasting anywhere from a week to a couple of months during this first stage.

After the initial acute phase, you move into chronic asymptomatic HIV infection, which can last for 10 years or more. During this phase, you’ll likely feel fine or experience very mild symptoms like swollen lymph nodes. Even without symptoms, however, you can still transmit the virus to others.

How do you get tested for HIV?

The Canadian government estimates that there are around 62,000 people living with HIV in the country and that 13% are unaware of their status. If you have a higher risk of contracting the virus, your doctor will likely recommend you go for regular HIV testing, which is done through a blood test. In Canada, HIV tests are typically available for free. Because the symptoms of HIV are so unspecific and can mimic a host of other illnesses, the only way to know your status for sure is to get tested.

When does HIV turn into AIDS?

Without treatment, chronic asymptomatic HIV infection will progress to chronic symptomatic infection. It’s at this point when the virus is replicating profusely, and your immune system is unable to fight off infections properly, that an HIV infection turns into AIDS. Your doctor will make an AIDS diagnosis based on how much of the virus is in your system (your viral load), and how many T4 cells you have in your blood — an important metric of how your immune system is functioning. 

Symptoms of AIDS

Once HIV turns into AIDS, your immune system is severely compromised. This causes a number of symptoms including:

  • Night sweats
  • Exhaustion
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Swelling of your lymph nodes
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Frequent opportunistic infections like thrush or herpes
  • Pneumonia
  • Sores 

How do you prevent HIV?

HIV spreads through blood, breast milk, and vaginal, rectal, and seminal fluids (semen). The best way to avoid getting HIV is to avoid contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. Practicing safe sex through proper use of a condom reduces your chances of getting HIV by 90-95%. Avoiding injection drug use or not sharing needles and syringes prevents you from contracting the virus. You should also never share razors or toothbrushes with an infected person. But there are additional measures available as well. Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is a prescription medication you can take to lower your risk of contracting HIV. With proper use, PrEP can lower your risk of contracting HIV through sex by 99% and from contracting it through injection drug use by at least 74%.

In Ontario, PrEP is covered through certain provincial or private insurance plans for most people. If you’re concerned about potential exposure to HIV, PrEP may be right for you. Book an OHIP-covered consultation with a doctor on Maple to discuss your HIV risk and prevention options today. 

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