The Symptoms of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is an infection that manifests at a rather advanced stage. It's for this reason that those who are infected and haven't yet received treatment continue to spread it. Find out more about its transmission and symptoms in this article.
The Symptoms of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

Last update: 10 October, 2020

The symptoms of HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) vary as the infection doesn’t manifest until it’s already advanced. Thus it’s hard to detect it in time. However, labs have made a lot of progress in regard to the quality of the tests they use.

Knowing the possible signs of the disease is key to its early detection. Based on this, they can establish treatments that greatly improve patients’ quality of life. Also, they can help them cope with the complications of this pathology.

What is the HIV virus?

The human immunodeficiency virus belongs to a special family of viruses called Retroviruses. This is because they contain a single chain of ribonucleic acid or RNA within them. Its nucleus contains genetic information and a lipid coat with different receptors.

These receptors are what allows the virus to enter human cells. Specifically, CD4 + lymphocytes, which are the body’s defense cells responsible for organizing the immune system. Thus, they cannot fulfill their function and the body is defenseless against other infections when this viral particle attacks them.

The stigmatization of patients with symptoms of HIV led to all sorts of myths. People used to think the virus was air and waterborne. They also believed mosquitoes and other insects transmitted it. Similarly, they believed they could contract it by contact with the sweat of an infected person. However:

  • The virus doesn’t survive long outside the human body and cannot reproduce without a host
  • Therefore, it’s impossible for it to be transmitted through air or water
  • HIV can only transmit through certain body fluids, such as blood or semen, but not through sweat, tears, or saliva. Thus, neither hugs, handshakes, sharing a toilet, nor giving a social kiss to an infected person are risky.
A lab technician working.
Early detection of HIV is key to a better quality of life for patients.

Transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus

These body fluids are modes of transmission:

  • Semen and precum. This is important to know because pulling-out doesn’t prevent the spread of HIV. Only the use of prophylactic measures, such as condoms, are effective.
  • Rectal vaginal secretions, and the mucus of these areas.
  • Blood. You can pass down or contract through transfusions, although the incidence rate for this cause is currently negligible. This is because the tests on transfused people are rather strict. Similarly, sharing syringes in intravenous addicts are a growing risk.

The mentioned body fluids must come into contact with the other person’s mucous membranes or injured tissues for transmission to occur. Either that or be injected into the bloodstream. On another level, women with HIV can transmit the virus to their babies during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.

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Symptoms of HIV

The symptoms of HIV don’t appear until it’s already at an advanced stage. Mainly when the infected people contract other opportunistic infections or develop neoplasms. This creates a long window with no opportunity for early detection and this worsens the prognosis.

Initially, the virus causes flu-like symptoms with fever, tiredness, and joint pain when it enters the bloodstream and replicates. However, people often mistake these symptoms for a common cold.

This flu-like picture is self-limited and the person is well again after a few weeks or days. However, the virus doesn’t disappear. In fact, it remains latent within the lymphocytes and lymph nodes. After a few years, it comes out of hibernation and begins to replicate. It depends on each infected person, though.

As the person finds themselves defenseless, other viruses, bacteria, and fungi are able to infect them. The same microorganisms that don’t usually cause problems in a healthy person, lead to serious infections in a person with HIV. This is why we say these types of pathologies are opportunistic.

Some examples

  • Pneumocystis jiroveci causes severe pneumonia, affecting both lungs without expectoration or pain in the chest. Also, the infected person will have a constant fever and a feeling of suffocation.
  • Recurrent pneumococcus.
  • Pulmonary and extrapulmonary tuberculosis. Most of the people exposed to this bacterium manage to stop the infection and prevent its evolution. However, the defenses aren’t enough in the case of HIV.
  • Cerebral toxoplasmosis. A toxoplasma is a parasite found in raw meat and cat feces. Most of the population has had contact with this parasite at some point or another, but the disease never develops. However, it resurfaces and lodges in the brain in situations of immunosuppression.
  • Digestive Candida. One of the symptoms of HIV in the digestive system is gastroenteritis caused by rare fungi, such as candidiasis.

Any infection spreads throughout the body and becomes serious in a patient with HIV. This is because there aren’t enough defenses to control them. Mortality isn’t so much from the virus itself, but from opportunistic infections.

There are also neoplasms that develop characteristically in patients with HIV. These are cancers that aren’t as frequent in other people and that multiply due to the deficiency of the immune system in the identification of abnormal cells. The most common one is Kaposi’s sarcoma.

A red ribbon on a globe.
HIV has spread throughout the world and the possibility of transmission is high, so its early detection is important.

What to do when detecting possible symptoms of human immunodeficiency virus?

Currently, anyone who has positive markers for HIV can begin early antiretroviral treatment. The importance of using these drugs as quickly as possible is to prevent spreading it and improve the life expectancy of a patient.

Not taking antiretroviral treatment makes the infection go out of control and the immune system becomes weaker. In addition, other people who might be infected by the high viral load are at higher risk — by having unprotected sex, for example.

Symptoms of suspected HIV should alert you to request a screening test from your doctor. Don’t be afraid to request it. Many countries have already legislated mechanisms to ensure confidentiality and so there are no prejudices about the patients’ medical records.

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