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Spotting the Early Symptoms and Warning Signs of HIV

How Do You Know if You Have HIV?

HIV is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. The virus weakens the cells, which are important to prevent disease and infection. Currently, there is no effective cure for HIV, but with proper monitoring paired with medical care and a healthy lifestyle, HIV progression can be controlled. So, how do you know if you have HIV? Let’s find out.

What is HIV?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is found in an infected person’s semen, pre-ejaculatory fluids, blood, and breast milk. HIV causes disease by attacking and destroying a specific type of white blood cell called CD4 cells, which play an important role in the immune system by fighting infections and some types of cancers. If HIV is not treated, the virus can deplete the CD4 cells and can eventually lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

How Do People Get HIV?

HIV is transmitted by contact with body fluids and blood that is infected with the virus. Any behavior that makes you come in contact with these substances puts you at risk of getting infected.

The most common routes of transmission of HIV are the following:

  • Unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Unprotected sex is when a condom is not used.
  • Sharing needles or syringes during intravenous drug use, tattooing, body piercing, etc.

Other less common ways to be infected with HIV are:

  • Mother to infant transmission. Women who have HIV may transmit the virus to their baby during the pregnancy or the delivery, or through breastmilk. Drug therapy given to HIV-positive mothers during pregnancy and to infants after birth greatly reduces the possibility of transmission.
  • Needle stick injuries in the health care setting.
  • Blood and blood product transfusions. The donors of blood products undergo a vigorous screening process before they are accepted to donate. The blood products are also tested to prevent the transmission of infectious agents through them.

How is Testing Performed?

Testing involves pre-test counseling and the actual test. Counseling before the test involves a nurse or doctor who will discuss the testing process, what the tests mean, and what your risks might be. Everything that you share with the counselor will be confidential and that you may request that your test be anonymous. Any questions that you have in mind will be answered during this step.

After the pre-test counseling, if you agree to be tested, you will either be tested through the standard HIV test or a rapid HIV screening test:

  • Standard HIV test: This is performed in a health care setting or lab. A health care professional will extract a blood (or oral fluid) sample from you, which will be sent to a laboratory for testing. This will take several days for your results to be available.
  • Rapid HIV screening: Blood will be taken through a tiny prick from the end of your finger. Results will immediately be available after a few minutes.

Both the standard and rapid HIV screening tests are over 99.6% accurate in detecting HIV antibodies and although the tests are very reliable it will still depend on your last possible exposure to the virus. There is a window period where it takes approximately three months for the HIV antibodies to show up on an HIV test. It is important to disclose all your possible contact exposures to the health care provider during the pre-test counseling so that if you are being tested during the window period, you may be recommended for a repeat test if your result turns out to be negative to ensure for the test to be completely accurate.

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Should I Get Tested?

The only way to find out your HIV status is through testing. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone between ages 13 and 64 be tested for HIV at least once.

Certain individuals who are at higher risk should be tested more often. If you had a previous test that was negative but occurred more than a year ago and you answer yes to any of the questions below, you should get another HIV test as soon as possible:

  • Are you a man who has had sex with another man?
  • Do you have a sexual partner who has HIV?
  • Did you ever have more than one sexual partner since your last test?
  • Have you had sex with someone whose sexual history you are sure of?
  • Have you injected drugs, shared needles, or syringes?
  • Have you exchanged drugs or sex for money?
  • Were you diagnosed with other sexually transmitted infections?
  • Have you been diagnosed with hepatitis or tuberculosis?

What Are the Early Symptoms and Warning Signs?

In this section, we will answer: How do you know if you have HIV? Some people develop flu-like symptoms, such as fever, body aches, and lymph node swelling about two to four weeks after the initial exposure to HIV. This is called “acute” or “primary” HIV infection and the symptoms go away on their own within several weeks.

After the acute stage, the virus may not show any symptoms for the following years. But during this time, the virus continues to actively multiply and damage the body’s immune cells slowly. The person may look and feel healthy during this time.

After multiple years, the virus depletes the CD4 cells of the immune system leaving the body unable to defend itself from infection and cancer cells. So, how do you know if you have HIV? Symptoms during this stage may include:

  • Recurrent fevers
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Persistent cough
  • Fatigue
  • Skin rashes
  • Pallor
  • Night sweats

The average time between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms is 8 to 10 years or more. These symptoms will help you answer: how do you know if you have HIV? If you experience these, be sure to talk to your doctor and get tested.

Treatment Options

Currently, there is no known effective cure against HIV. However, there are medications called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) that slows the multiplication of the virus, thus slowing down the progression of HIV infection. With the proper use of these medications and regular follow-up with a doctor, people with HIV are now living long and healthy lives.

Although HIV cannot be cured, the opportunistic infections and cancers that the virus causes can often be treated.

Special Lifestyle Precautions

People living with HIV often face issues with their nutrition. A well-balanced diet must be maintained to keep all the nutrients needed for proper functioning. Since HIV may make a person more prone to food-borne illnesses, certain food practices must be followed, such as:

  • Avoiding raw eggs, meats, or seafood (including sushi, oysters/shellfish)
  • Thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables before consumption
  • Practicing extra precautions when handling raw items
  • Only drinking filtered water

Exercise guidelines must be followed to keep the immune system functioning well and to limit the progression of lifestyle-related diseases. A minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise and two sessions of muscle strengthening activities must be performed to keep the body functioning on top form.

Smoking has many negative health effects. People with HIV who smoke are more likely to develop lung cancers, recurrent lung infections, develop oral infections, respond less to treatment, more prone to develop AIDS, and early death. Smoking cessation must be actively pursued by those who have HIV.

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