When human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was first diagnosed in the 1980s, it was considered a fatal disease. HIV attacks the body's immune system and can make it vulnerable to acquired immune deficiency syndrome or AIDS, a collection of conditions that put the body at high risk for life-threatening infections and cancer.
There is still no cure for HIV, but advancements over the past several decades have resulted in treatments that help stop its progress, so it is no longer considered a death sentence.
HIV is a virus that affects immunity and makes it harder for the natural immune system to ward off infections and disease. HIV is transmitted mostly through sexual contact with someone who has the infection or by sharing a contaminated needle.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 36,000 people are diagnosed with HIV every year. About 65% of those are gay men, but heterosexuals can also become infected, and pregnant women with HIV can pass it to their unborn babies during pregnancy or delivery. Breastfeeding may also transmit HIV from mother to baby.
In general, sexually transmitted infections are on the rise in the United States.
About two-thirds of people develop symptoms of HIV within two to four weeks of becoming infected. Early HIV symptoms resemble flu symptoms and may include:
- Night sweats
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Mouth ulcers
These initial symptoms can last a few days to several weeks. Symptoms may then subside, but unless HIV is diagnosed and treated, the disease will continue to affect the immune system.
Because there is no way to know for sure if you have HIV without a blood test, it’s important to get tested, especially if you believe you may have been exposed to the virus.
“We do recommend everyone get a test,” says Dr. Kim. “In fact, the CDC and US Preventive Services Task Force recommend that everyone have an HIV test somewhere between age 15 and 65. And of course if you have risk factors, then you should test more frequently.”
While HIV cannot be cured, it can be controlled. If you do test positive for HIV, safe, effective medications called antiretroviral therapy or ART can lower the viral load — the amount of virus found in an infected person’s blood — to the point where it is undetectable.
“If you treat HIV very early, then you can really prolong someone’s life expectancy and they can have almost a normal life,” says Dr. Kim. “The most important thing is making sure that you take the medication consistently, because it basically stops the HIV from replicating and progressing to affect the immune system adversely.”
Dr. Kim adds that, as long as the medication is taken regularly, the viral load stays very low and minimizes the risk of both serious long-term complications and passing the infection to other people.
Without treatment, HIV will slowly deplete the immune system and eventually lead to AIDS and its complications, such as life-threatening infections and some types of cancer. Plus, the risk of transmitting the infection to others will remain very high.
HIV can be prevented through safe sex practices, including using condoms during sex. Treating people with HIV also helps with prevention, as it lowers the risk of transmission to nearly zero. In addition, a newer medication called PrEP can help prevent HIV infection.
Even so, says Dr. Kim, it’s important to be aware that HIV is still a concern.
“We are still seeing it in large numbers,” he says. “Treatment is much better but it still underscores the importance of having a health care provider who can work with you as a partner and help you get the treatment you need, so you can live a very healthy life.”