About 37 million people are living with HIV in the world. More than 1.2 million people are living with HIV in the United States, of which 1 in 7 do not know.
HIV transmission is preventable. It is essential for us all to be aware and educated about HIV. Knowing even the most basic information can help you protect yourself, your sexual partner(s), and anyone in your life from transmission.
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, decreasing the body’s ability to fight germs. Germs can cause life threatening infections to a person whose immune system has been weakened by HIV. If left untreated, HIV can progress to AIDS. There is no cure for HIV; however, medical treatment and care can help someone living with HIV stay healthy and improve their quality of life.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is a serious condition in which the immune system has been severely weakened by chronic HIV. An individual diagnosed with AIDS is susceptible to a variety of infections that are less common in people with a healthier immune system. Medical treatment and care can help someone living with HIV and/or diagnosed with AIDS manage and possibly improve immune system function and overall health.
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), the virus that can lead to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), is transmitted from a person living with HIV to another person through blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk. Fluids that contain HIV must get into the bloodstream in order for the person to acquire the virus.
There is a high to moderate likelihood for acquiring HIV by:
- Having unprotected vaginal or anal sex, with greater risk to a receptive partner.
- Sharing needles with someone who is living with HIV. This could include injecting drugs, steroids, or vitamins; and sharing tattooing or piercing equipment.
- Breast-feeding by a mother living with HIV.
- Having unprotected oral sex with someone who is living with HIV.
Sometimes individuals exposed to HIV will go through an acute stage of the infection. Acute HIV infection is the time between when a person is exposed to the virus and when they produce an antibody response. This stage may include flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, night sweats, rashes, diarrhea, etc. However, these symptoms also can occur with a variety of other viral infections unrelated to HIV.
HIV antibody testing is the most common and accessible form of HIV testing, and is most likely to be available at reduced fees or free. Rapid HIV antibody testing, such as Uni-Gold, usually takes 10 minutes. These tests use a small sample of blood and are conducted with the client present. Please refer to BCAP’s HIV Testing page for further details.
ELISA and Western Blot tests are used for confirmatory testing. An ELISA test is highly sensitive to any recent antibody activity. A Western Blot test looks specifically for HIV antibodies. The ELISA/Western Blot combination is more costly due to the additional procedures needed to run the tests. A blood draw is required and it usually takes 3-10 days to receive results. In order for a serum sample to be confirmed HIV-positive, it must receive a positive ELISA test and a positive Western Blot test.
Viral load testing actually tests for the virus itself, not HIV antibodies. This type of testing commonly is used on people living with HIV to monitor the progression of the virus. This type of testing is costly and is not used to diagnose HIV.
Additionally, the FDA has approved 2 at-home HIV testing kits, which can be purchased for $45-$60 at local pharmacies. While HIV testing can come with a host of personal and social stigmatization, BCAP does not recommend home testing due to the value of in-person counseling. Receiving a reactive test result should not be done without the support of a trained counselor to help you handle questions, emotions, and what can be done next.
Rapid HIV antibody tests are highly accurate. A reactive HIV antibody test means that the test administered to you likely identified HIV antibodies in your blood. To confirm a reactive test result, you will need to access confirmatory testing as soon as possible.
While waiting for your confirmatory test results, make sure you take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally. Avoid surfing the internet for answers until your HIV status is confirmed. It is easy to psych yourself out with inaccurate information from websites, which could be mentally harmful during this time.
If you are concerned about a potential exposure to HIV, you may want to access Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP). PEP is HIV antiretroviral medication taken daily for 1 month to reduce the likelihood of acquiring HIV. This treatment is most effective if taken as soon as possible, but no later than 72 hours after potential exposure. The decision to take PEP is personal and can be complex. PEP treatment can include side effects that may impact your ability to conduct everyday work and social activities. Cost of the prescription is often upwards of $1,200 without insurance. However, PEP is covered by most insurances and can be accessed at local emergency rooms.