The Human immunodeficiency virus, more commonly known as HIV, is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). The only way to tell if you have this STI is to take a HIV test. It’s thought to have been in the U.S. since the 1970s. HIV attacks your T-cells, which impacts your immune system and makes it harder for your body to fight off infections.
If left untreated, the deterioration of the cells in your body and inability to fight infections can lead to various diseases including acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
HIV is a lifelong illness. While there is no cure for the virus, getting tested is important to help manage the progression of the disease.
Thanks to modern medicine, with the right medication, those whose HIV test came back positive can live long and healthy lives. Treatment also lowers the risk of transmitting the disease to future sexual partners.
What is HIV? Knowing is Half the Battle
What is HIV? Everyone is familiar with this abbreviation, but it actually stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. It’s also one of the most widely misunderstood.
Since this is such a common sexually transmitted infection, it is more important than ever before to recognize the signs and symptoms of HIV.
The Big Picture
That takes us back to our original question: what is HIV? Now that you know what HIV stands for, we can tell you more about what it actually is. HIV is a virus that works to weaken your immune system. It destroys important defensive cells that are designed to help you fight off other diseases or infections. It can be transmitted by intravenous drug use and through childbirth, but the most common way to become infected with HIV is through vaginal, anal or oral sex.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that there are over one million people living with HIV in the United States. During the early stages of HIV, your symptoms may seem similar to the flu. Ultimately, this virus can lead to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Contrary to popular belief, AIDS is not a separate virus. It’s actually a set of symptoms that make up the most severe phase of the HIV infection.
That common misconceptions related to “what is HIV” and “what is AIDS” is critical to understand. To help, let’s walk through the full lifecycle of the infection.
How Can You Get HIV?
HIV is spread when blood, semen, or vaginal fluid from an infected partner enters your body. It was once believed that being around an infected person–even hugging them–was enough to transfer the virus, but this is a myth.
Some sexual activities make you more susceptible to HIV. If you have unprotected sex with an infected person, you can get HIV. The virus can be transferred through small tears in the mouth, vagina, or anus. Having unprotected sex and having multiple partners present the greatest potential risk of infection. You won’t know that you’ve contracted this STI until you take an HIV test.
Pregnant women who have the virus may pass it on to their children. HIV can be spread during the pregnancy itself, delivery or while breastfeeding. With the proper treatment, infected mothers can lower the risk of transmission to their children.
Sharing contaminated needles–through drugs, tattoos, and even acupuncture–can spread HIV. Blood transfusions are a possibility–so medical personnel and first responders have to be careful–but treatment is available if you’re in contact with someone’s blood who is HIV positive.
What is HIV?: The Acute Illness Phase
Typically, the first HIV symptoms may become visible within two-to-four weeks after the initial infection. That said, it is quite possible that you may not experience any signs or symptoms of HIV during this phase at all.
The most common symptoms of the acute phase may include:
- body rash
- sore throat
- severe headaches
- swollen lymph nodes
- ulcers in the mouth or on the genitals
- muscle aches and joint pain
- nausea and vomiting
- night sweats
As we briefly mentioned above, many of these symptoms can seem remarkably similar to the flu. Even worse, this first phase of HIV may not show any identifiable signs at all.
This can be problematic. Many infected people may honestly never realize that they have been infected. Still more troubling is the fact that this phase of HIV can potentially last for years.
What is HIV?: The Asymptomatic Period
The second phase of HIV infection is commonly called the Asymptomatic Period. Much like the name suggests, most people will not notice any symptoms during this next phase. Unfortunately, this phase can last a shockingly long time. In many cases, it can last for ten years or more. An individual who is HIV positive may go for years without seeing any visible signs and symptoms of HIV.
But just because you’re not seeing any symptoms, doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In fact, in this phase, HIV is still ravaging your body. You may not feel sick, but the infection is replicating inside of you. Your immune system is taking a major hit during the Asymptomatic Period.
What is HIV?: The Advanced Infection
Advanced Infection is the “final” stage of being HIV positive. If you haven’t been treated yet, your immune system has taken on a tremendous amount of damage. During this highly weakened state, your body will be far more susceptible to other illnesses. This stage is often referred to as AIDS.
During the Advanced Infection stage, you might experience the following AIDS symptoms:
- rapid weight loss
- shortness of breath
- night sweats
- rashes, sores, or lesions
- swelling of the lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, or neck
- memory loss, confusion, or neurological disorders
Be Prepared… with PrEP!
Now that you understand the difference of what is HIV versus what is “the flu,” let’s talk about how you can protect yourself from it. Obviously condoms will always be an excellent first line of defense.
PrEP is short for “pre-exposure prophylaxis.”
- Pre – acting before an infection occurs
- Exposure – when you first come into contact with HIV
- Prophylaxis – a treatment that prevents an infection from taking root
Much like birth control pills, it is best to take PrEP at the same time every day. It works by blocking a specific enzyme known as “HIV reverse transcriptase.” When someone is exposed to HIV, PrEP works to prevent the virus from establishing a permanent foothold in the body.
Often, people who are considered “at risk” for being exposed to HIV, like partners of HIV positive people, take this medication as a way of preventing them from contracting the infection. Those individuals who believe they are at risk for exposure to HIV should see a medical professional about beginning PrEP treatment.
Taking Total Control of Your Sexual Health
In addition to safe sex and PreP, routinely scheduled HIV testing is the key to total sexual health. PrEP is a powerful prevention tool, but testing is the only way you can be absolutely sure of your status. You can order a quick-and-easy at-home HIV testing package from myLAB Box. These tests offer lab-certified results that can be checked discreetly online. Our recent “Guide to HIV Testing” blog post is an excellent starting point.
Using a combination of at-home STD testing kits, condoms and PrEP preventative medication, we are looking at a very bright sexual future.
Where Can I get a HIV Test?
A HIV test is the only way to confirm whether or not you have the virus. You can get an HIV test through your doctor, a hospital, medical clinics, substance abuse programs, and local health centers.
Out Of The Closet Thrift Stores
The Aids Healthcare Foundation has opened a number of great thrift stores across the US. 96 cents for every dollar spent at these stores goes to HIV/AIDS services provided by the AHF. They provide testing and information right in the store, which means you can pick up some sweet thrifty finds while you’re waiting for your results.
With roughly 650 health centers around the country, it shouldn’t be too hard to find one near you. These centers do HIV testing, but also provide a number of other services, from LGBT support and emergency contraception, to many things in between.
This BBB accredited business has partnered with over 4000 labs nationwide. They offer online test results and accept insurance plans and health savings accounts (HSA).
Since 2011, Walgreens has teamed up with greaterthan.org and local health departments to offer free HIV testing in the days leading up to National HIV Testing Day, which is June 27*.
Test At Home
You can order an HIV test and screen at home. Some HIV tests provide an option for rapid results by swabbing the inside of your mouth. myLAB Box’s HIV test takes it to the next level, screening a small blood sample from a pin prick to detect antibodies of HIV-1 and HIV-2.
Here’s the myLAB Box process:
- 1-3 days after you click “order,” your test package will arrive at your door in a discreet package.
- It only takes 5 minutes to complete the test. For HIV testing, this requires a small sample of blood.
- Pop your sample back in the mail using our return-addressed stamped envelope.
- Receive lab-certified results online in just a few days.
Here are all of the HIV testing options available from myLAB Box:
HIV Home Test ($79) – This focused test screens for HIV. Other infections you can test for individually include: Trich, Genital Herpes, Chlamydia and Gonorrhea, HPV (in women 30 years and older), Mycoplasma Genitalium, Syphilis, and Hepatitis C.
Safe Box ($189) – This 4-panel home STD test screens for four of the most common sexually transmitted infections: HIV, Chlamydia, Gonorrhea and Trichomoniasis.
Uber Box ($269) – This option is the most popular myLAB Box testing kit! – This home 8-panel home STD screens for: HIV (I & II), Hepatitis C, Herpes Simplex Type II, Syphilis, Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Trichomoniasis.
Total Box ($369-399) – This option is the most comprehensive home testing kit on the market! – This 14-panel test kit includes: HIV (I & II), Hepatitis C, Herpes type-II, Syphilis, Chlamydia (genital, throat and rectal), Gonorrhea (genital, throat and rectal), Trichomoniasis and Mycoplasma genitalium. Women who are 30 years of age or older can add the option to test for HPV.
Love Box ($499) – This is an 8-panel STD test for couples. It includes two mail-in test kits for all the infections listed above in the Uber Box list. This testing option is designed specifically for you and your partner to test together, as a couple. Now we can tackle the country’s alarmingly high infection rates two-at-a-time!
You simply send the tiny blood sample off in the mail in a stamped envelope, and you’ll find out your HIV test results in two to five days.
What Happens if I have HIV?
If your HIV test comes back positive, consult with one of the doctors and/or counselors myLAB Box provides to discuss your next steps. You’ll probably start HIV treatment as soon as possible. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is the most-recommended medicine prescribed to those infected and it can block the virus.
While it can feel scary since you tested positive from an HIV test, know that approximately 1.1 million people lie with HIV in the U.S. Many of them are living healthy and longer lives thanks to proper medical care and medication.
In addition to protecting yourself, you should also protect those around you from contracting the disease. Inform your sexual partners and/or people you shared needles with about your diagnosis. Encourage your partner and family members to get an HIV test at home as well.
Getting treatment for HIV early is extremely important. Take an HIV test every few months and give yourself the gift of peace of mind with lab-certified, discreet STI test results.
What’s the Difference Between HIV and AIDS?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It weakens your immune system by destroying important cells that are needed to fight off other diseases or infections. This virus is passed from person to person via blood or bodily fluids. The most common ways to become infected are through vaginal, anal or oral sex.
During the early stages of HIV, your symptoms may seem similar to the flu. Headaches, fever, sore throat and a body rash are usually the most common symptoms. Other flu-like symptoms may include swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, nausea, night sweats, muscle aches and joint pains.
In the latest stages, HIV develops into Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. Contrary to popular belief, AIDS is not a separate virus. It’s actually a set of symptoms that make up the most severe phase of the HIV infection.
AIDS affects over two million people worldwide and leaves their immune systems significantly damaged. This makes them susceptible to dangerous infections and diseases.
To date, medical science has not developed a cure for HIV. Fortunately, this STI can still be controlled with proper treatment and care. But in order to be treated you must first realize that you are infected. That’s where testing comes in.
Smash the Stigma
Try as we might to get rid of it, there is still a powerful stigma that surrounds the discussion around HIV and AIDS. In fact, it stands in the way of many people ever being tested. Misguided notions about the transmission of HIV often prevent many people from even seeking advice.
Knowing your HIV status is one of the most powerful ways to keep yourself and your partners healthy. While certain groups may seem to be more “at risk” than others, you can never be sure unless you are properly screened.
“Even if you don’t think you’re at risk for HIV, it is still important that you get tested,” says Lora Ivanova, CMO and Co-Founder of myLAB Box. “If you are sexually active, you are at risk. The more of us who know our status, the easier it will become to stop the spread of infection and even save lives.”
Routine Testing is the Key to Stopping HIV
The key to stopping the spread of HIV will always be routine testing. The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 tests for HIV. At myLAB Box, we recommend that everyone screens for all of the major STIs at least once each year.
National HIV Testing Day offers a wonderful opportunity to put this idea into action. It spreads HIV awareness and encourages us to speak openly about our status.
Early detection can stop the spread of HIV among unknowing carriers and their partners. Whether you test in-person at a clinic or choose to test from home, the key is simply to get tested.