HIV Series: What is HIV and how does it impact my body?

Did you know that over 1 million people in the United States are currently living with HIV? An estimated 50,000 new infections are diagnosed per year, and African Americans, though only 12% of the US population, account for 44% of all new HIV infections. More specifically, in 2010, black women accounted for 29% of all new HIV infections.



You may be thinking, why should I care about this, unless it personally impacts me? Well, lack of information about HIV in communities of color will only contribute to its spread. It is important that people educate themselves about this disease, because more knowledge will lead to greater prevention efforts. In the first part of this three part series, I will break down how the disease impacts the body. In part two, I will offer suggestions for how to live a fulfilling life post diagnosis for those who may have HIV. Lastly, I will talk about how to best support a family member or friend living with HIV.


I will begin with the obvious question most people ask when they hear about HIV; what is the difference between HIV and AIDS? And why are they always talked about together?


To put it plainly, human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV) is a virus and AIDS is a condition brought about by HIV. It is spread through the transfusion of certain bodily fluids, namely blood, semen, breast milk, rectal fluids, and vaginal fluids. Once one of these fluids (from an infected person) comes into contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue or is directly injected into the bloodstream of another person, the virus has been transmitted.


Before I continue, I want to debunk a popular myth about HIV. It is not spread by air or water, mosquitos, drinking fountains, or saliva. This is a dangerous misconception about how the virus spreads that leads to false forms of prevention.


Now, you may be wondering how the virus impacts the body once it enters the bloodstream. Well, the virus causes disease by infecting and destroying blood cells called lymphocytes that protect the body against infection. This means that it is harder for the body to fight off infection and sickness, which is normally very easy for the body to do. Thus, initial symptoms of HIV at the time of infection include high fevers, swollen glands, and night sweats.


Strangely, after that, the person may go through a period during which there are no symptoms. This period of time varies depending on the person, but can be anywhere between a couple months to several years. However, once the body’s immune system continues to be broken down from fighting HIV, a microbe (an organism that the body’s immune system would normally fight off) may cause an infection, such as pneumonia, that won’t go away because the body’s immune system is much weaker. This is considered the late point of infection at which the body progresses to AIDS. Symptoms of AIDS include:

  • Rapid weight loss

  • Recurring fever or profuse night sweats

  • Extreme and unexplained tiredness

  • Prolonged swelling of the lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck

  • Sores of the mouth, anus, or genitals

  • Pneumonia

  • Red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids

  • Memory loss, depression, and other neurologic disorders.

In the past decade, HIV/AIDS treatments have become much more effective in decreasing the severity of symptoms of HIV. Antiretroviral therapy, or ART, prevents the growth of the virus. If ART is taken immediately, it can reduce the viral load in the body, or amount of the virus in the bloodstream. ART also works to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others.


Treatments for HIV are constantly evolving. Thankfully, advances in treatment have significantly reduced AIDS-related deaths and extended the lives of Americans with HIV. For black women, access to ART treatment has been a greater challenge. However, with increasing access to information about ART and online support networks for HIV positive women of color, access to ART treatment is becoming more available.

I hope this has been helpful, and I look forward to the next post about living a fulfilling life with an HIV positive status!


Sources

https://www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/how-you-get-hiv-aids/

https://www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/signs-and-symptoms/

http://www.aidsinfonet.org/fact_sheets/view/403

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Community Conversations: Sister to Sister, a women's health initiative, is an an ongoing, open forum to explore health issues of particular relevance to Black women and their families. 

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