What is HIV?

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a retrovirus that attacks T cells in the immune system. If allowed to run rampant through the body, HIV infection usually leads to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), a condition that is fatal without treatment. The virus was first identified in the 1980s and was known by several alternative names, including human T-lymphotropic virus III (HTLV-III), lymphadenopathy-associated virus (LAV), and AIDS-associated retrovirus (ARV). ). As of 2008, there is no cure for this infection.

HIV infection occurs as a result of contact with body fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk. Saliva does not appear to carry the virus, although if there are sores inside the mouth, it may be present in the saliva. Once HIV enters the body, the retrovirus hijacks T cells, forcing them to replicate and transporting the virus throughout the body. Like other retroviruses, HIV carries its genetic material in RNA, rather than DNA.

By hijacking T cells, HIV makes these cells unavailable to the immune system. As a result, the virus weakens the immune system, putting the patient at risk of developing an opportunistic infection. If a patient infected with the virus develops an opportunistic infection, they are diagnosed with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The difference between HIV and AIDS is that HIV is a virus while AIDS is a collection of infections and symptoms caused by the infection.

The risk of HIV infection can be greatly reduced or prevented by taking care in situations where body fluids may be exchanged. Barrier protection is recommended during sexual contact, as is wearing gloves in settings where blood may be present, such as a car accident.

A blood test can be used to check for the presence of HIV in the body. Many doctors use cheek swabs to perform tests, in a technique that is less invasive than a blood test. Regular testing is recommended, so that the virus can be detected early. With the use of certain drugs, the expression of HIV in the body can be inhibited, slow down or prevent the development of AIDS. In about 1% of cases, an infection does not develop into AIDS. Patients who fall into this small category are known as non-progressors.

Some people are infected with HIV without realizing it. An infection may cause symptoms such as a runny nose, headaches, cough, or nausea, or the virus may not cause any symptoms. Unless regular tests are used to detect the virus, HIV may not be diagnosed until after opportunistic infections, which cause AIDS, have been established. Several conditions are characteristic of AIDS, including Kaposi's sarcoma, pneumocystis pneumonia, night sweats, cytomegalovirus, and toxoplasmosis. These conditions primarily affect people with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients and the elderly, and when they appear in someone who is otherwise healthy, they usually indicate the presence of an HIV infection.

Go up