Published: 27 Nov 2023, 16:00 pm IST
Medically Reviewed by

What is HIV/AIDS?

As per 2022 data from the World Health Organization (WHO), 39 million individuals are currently living with HIV globally, underscoring the importance of understanding this condition for effective prevention.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is an infection that attacks the immune system, specifically the CD4 cells, weakening the body’s ability to combat infections and diseases. Initial HIV symptoms resemble flu-like symptoms, appearing within 2 to 4 weeks after getting infected. If not treated, the virus progressively damages the immune system, leading to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that since the onset of the epidemic, 85.6 million people have been infected with HIV, resulting in approximately 40.4 million deaths. Unfortunately, there’s no cure for HIV yet, and once someone has it, they have it for life.

Causes of HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS is a chronic immune system disease caused by the transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The transmission can be caused due to multiple reasons:

  • Unprotected sex: Sexual intercourse without using condoms is a major mode of transmission, particularly in heterosexual and homosexual relationships. The virus is present in semen, vaginal fluids, and blood.
  • Needle sharing: Sharing contaminated needles among intravenous drug users facilitates the spread of the virus.
  • Mother-to-child transmission: HIV can be transmitted during childbirth or breastfeeding if the mother is infected. Antiretroviral interventions during pregnancy significantly reduce this risk.
  • Blood transfusions and organ transplants: Although rare, unsafe medical procedures involving blood or organ transplants can contribute to HIV transmission.
  • Bodily fluids: HIV/AIDS can also be spread through body fluids like blood, semen, vaginal fluid, breast milk, etc.

HIV does not spread through casual contact, air, water, or insect bites. Promoting safe sex practices, providing access to clean needles for drug users, and ensuring universal precautions in healthcare settings, are vital steps in fighting against HIV/AIDS.

Key Facts of HIV/AIDS

Major Symptoms
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Sore Throat
  • Rashes
  • Headache
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Night sweats
  • Diarrhea
  • Mouth ulcers or genital ulcers
Necessary Health Tests
  • HIV antibody test
  • Antigen/antibody test
  • Nucleic acid test (NAT)
  • CD4 T-Cell Count
  • Viral load test

Medical treatment

  • Antiretroviral therapy (ART)
  • Combination therapy
  • Adherence to medication
  • Regular medical monitoring

Lifestyle modifications

  • Follow a healthy diet
  • Perform exercises regularly
  • Manage stress levels
  • Adequate sleep
  • Vaccination

Symptoms of HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS manifests in various stages, each with distinct symptoms reflecting the progression of the disease.

1. Acute HIV Infection

Within 2-4 weeks of infection, flu-like symptoms may occur, including fever, fatigue, a sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, and a rash. However, some individuals may experience no symptoms at all.

2. Clinical Latency (Chronic HIV)

The asymptomatic phase can last for years, and many individuals show no apparent symptoms. Meanwhile, the virus keeps replicating and weakening the immune system, and transmission is still possible.

3. Symptomatic HIV

As the immune system deteriorates, individuals may experience persistent symptoms such as fever, weight loss, chronic diarrhea, night sweats, and recurring respiratory infections.

4. AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome)

If a person has HIV and is not on HIV treatment, gradually the virus will weaken the immune system and progress to AIDS. As the immune system becomes severely compromised, it can lead to more severe conditions. This may include opportunistic infections and cancers. Conditions such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and certain cancers like Kaposi’s sarcoma become more prevalent.

Early detection and medical intervention, particularly antiretroviral therapy (ART), can slow the progression of HIV, delaying the onset of AIDS.

Diagnosis of HIV/AIDS

Diagnosing HIV/AIDS involves specific tests to detect the presence of the virus or its antibodies. Before any tests, the doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical examination is done to confirm certain risks that make your chances of infection higher. If the doctor suspects HIV, these are some common diagnostic tests:

  • HIV antibody test: This blood or saliva test detects antibodies produced by the immune system in response to HIV infection. Results may take a few days to weeks.
  • Antigen/antibody test: This combination test identifies both HIV antibodies and the viral antigen, providing quicker results than the antibody test.
  • Nucleic acid test (NAT): A blood test that directly detects the virus’s genetic material. NAT is used in the early stages, when viral levels may be low.
  • CD4 T-Cell Count: It monitors the number of CD4 cells in the blood and helps assess the immune system’s health and the progression of the disease.
  • Viral load test: It measures the amount of HIV genetic material in the blood, aiding in tracking disease progression and evaluating treatment effectiveness.


Treatment of HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS is not curable, but it is a manageable disease with lifestyle changes and medical intervention. Treatment options include:

1. Antiretroviral therapy (ART)

ART consists of a combination of drugs that aim to suppress viral replication, slow disease progression, and preserve the immune system. It typically involves a combination of three or more antiretroviral drugs, often from different classes, to minimize the likelihood of drug resistance.

Various classes of antiretroviral drugs include nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs), non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs), protease inhibitors (PIs), integrase strand transfer inhibitors (INSTIs), and entry inhibitors.

2. Combination therapy

Combination therapy, often called Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART), is standard to enhance effectiveness and reduce the risk of developing drug-resistant strains.

3. Adherence to medication

Consistent and lifelong adherence to the prescribed medication regimen is essential for treatment success. Skipping doses can lead to viral resistance and treatment failure.

4. Regular medical monitoring

Undergo routine medical check-ups to assess treatment effectiveness, monitor CD4 cell count, and manage potential side effects.

5. Lifestyle modifications

  • Healthy diet: Adopt a balanced and nutritious diet to support overall health and strengthen the immune system.
  • Regular exercise: Engage in regular physical activity to boost immune function, improve cardiovascular health, and enhance overall well-being.
  • Stress management: Practice stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation or yoga, to manage mental and emotional well-being, which can positively impact the immune system.
  • Adequate sleep: Ensure sufficient, quality sleep to promote immune system health and overall resilience.
  • Vaccinations: Stay up-to-date on vaccinations, including those for preventable infections, to further protect the immune system.

Remember, these lifestyle changes complement medical interventions but do not treat the condition.


Are HIV and AIDS the same?

No, HIV and AIDS are not the same. HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, weakening the body's ability to fight off infections and diseases and can lead to AIDS. AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection, characterized by severe immune system damage and the onset of opportunistic infections.

Can HIV be cured?

There is no cure for HIV, but it can be managed with antiretroviral therapy (ART). Also, early detection and medical treatment can significantly prolong and improve the quality of life.

Can a pregnant woman with HIV pass the virus on to her baby?

Yes, a pregnant woman with HIV can transmit the virus to her baby. However, with proper medical care and treatment during pregnancy, the risk of transmission can be significantly reduced.

How can HIV/AIDS be prevented?

To prevent HIV/AIDS, use condoms during sexual intercourse. Avoid sharing needles or syringes, get tested, and know your partner's HIV status.

Can HIV be transmitted through casual contact?

No, HIV is not transmitted through casual contact like hugging, shaking hands, or sharing utensils.

Is HIV/AIDS only a concern for specific groups?

No, it can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

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