AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is caused by a virus known as HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). In simple words, HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system of the body that weakens it, making it harder for the body to fight infections and also some types of cancers.

Currently, about 21 lakh odd people are living with HIV positive in India, 3% of which are children. It is important to beware of risks, symptoms and prevention of HIV.

Certain parts of the population are more at risk than others

  • People who inject illicit drugs
  • Bisexual and gay men
  • Sex Workers
  • Women (since not all women are in a position to always insist using protection)
  • Young adults between the age 15-25

How does one get infected?

The virus is transmitted by the blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk of infected people. It is also found in the saliva, sweat, and tears, though not in high enough amounts to transmit the virus to another person. 

HIV is more commonly transmitted through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Though it is said that the risk of infection is lower with oral sex, it is still strongly advised  to use protection during oral sex, such as a dental dam (a piece of latex to cover the vagina during oral sex) or a condom. 

HIV can also be passed on through perinatal infection, where mothers who have HIV are at risk of giving the disease to the baby during birth. Breast-feeding by an infected mother can also transmit HIV.

Symptoms and Complications

Symptoms of HIV infection appear 2 to 12 weeks after exposure. These symptoms usually include-

  • Swollen lymph nodes: Lymph nodes can be the first ones to be affected in response to the inflammatory reaction of the immune system.

  • Prolonged fatigue: HIV infection has been known to make your body lethargic. You may feel tired sooner than you usually do.

  • Recurring fever: Fever is body’s first response to any infection. An infected person will experience flu-like symptoms sometime during the initial four weeks. 

  • Skin rashes: An infected person will notice red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids.

  • Night sweats, muscle and joint pains and extreme headaches

  • Rapid and unexplained weight loss

  • Pneumonia, Diarrhea

Despite widespread availability of HIV testing, only an estimated 51% of people with HIV know their status

Without timely diagnosis or a proper treatment, about half of HIV-positive people develop AIDS within 10 years of getting infected. Some people can also develop AIDS within just a few years of infection. A select few cases (called long-term non-progressors), do not develop AIDS until much later. Many factors can affect the time frame to develop AIDS, including medications and the person's general health and lifestyle.

Anyone can become infected with HIV. Fortunately, it can be prevented!

The main ways to prevent HIV infection are:

  • Unless you are in a mutually monogamous relationship (neither of you is having sex with anyone else), and you are sure neither of you is HIV-positive, make sure to use a condom every time you have sex. 
  • In some cases, couples where one partner is infected may decide to risk infection of the other partner, especially if they are trying to get pregnant. If this is the case, talk to your doctor. 
  • Your choice of sexual partner is also important, since condoms do sometimes break or leak. You may know that you practice safe sex and that you haven't used dirty needles, but you must also know that your sexual partners and all their other partners do the same. 
  • Sharing needles is very dangerous – it carries a high risk of getting HIV.
  • People with other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as herpes are much more likely to contract HIV during sex, probably because of tiny breaks in their skin or vaginal lining. Keeping free of other STIs will help reduce your risk of HIV infection, but this alone will not protect you from infection. Which is why it is important to use condoms.

Having HIV doesn’t mean you stop living a full and healthy life. With the right treatment and care, you can expect to live just as long as someone who doesn’t have HIV. There’s a lot you can do to take care of yourself and feel fitter, healthier and happier.