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Human Immunodeficiency Virus

Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV disease, is a spectrum of illnesses caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The disease was first recognized in the very early 1980's. HIV disease represents a potential threat to everyone - men, women, and children. The number of deaths, people with symptoms, and people infected, continues to climb at an alarming rate. From the beginning of the epidemic people of all sexes, ages, and backgrounds have been affected.

Very simply, HIV destroys the body's immune system over a period of time by killing the white cells that to respond to and destroy other infections. As people with HIV progress in their disease, they have less and less ability to fend off these infections or cancers. Most people who die from this disease succumb to one of these other infections.

How You Get It

The disease is passed on through unprotected sex with an infected partner. Any potential blood contact with an infected person (shared drug needles, anal sex) increases the risk potential dramatically.

How It Is Transmitted

Infection occurs when the virus is passed from an infected partner during sex or when needles are shared during drug use. The virus passes through a break in the skin or penetrates the moist mucosal membranes of the penis, vagina, cervix, anus, or oral cavities.

What It Looks Like - What Are The Symptoms

HIV is unique because it often presents with no symptoms for an extended period of time after infection. A person could be infected with HIV, not feel sick, and not be aware of the danger they present to themselves and others. This period of asymptomatic (no symptoms) infection can last years.

When HIV symptoms do present, they come in many forms. Some are related to HIV infection while others are due to infections attacking the body in its weakened state. Therefore, any combination of symptoms may appear and should be reason to seek qualified medical attention immediately.

Some of the symptoms are: Lumps in the armpits, neck or groin; purple spots on the skin; purplish raised bumps on the skin; skin rashes, boils, or sores; growths beneath the skin; growths on the skin that line the mouth, nasal passages, anus, vagina, or inside the eyelids; a heavy white coating of the tongue (thrush); shingles; unexplained weight loss; fever or night sweats; ongoing dry cough or shortness of breath; persistent diarrhea; bleeding without cause from any body opening; being tired, dizzy, or faint frequently; difficulty swallowing; difficulty with urination or bowel movements; persistent pain; memory loss, blurred vision, and changes in hearing, smell, or taste.

In the later stages of disease, patients suffer a range of rare and unique infections. These include PCP (a form of pneumonia), Kaposi's sarcoma (a form of skin cancer), and cytomegalovirus (CMV). These infections are very debilitating, can recur, and often cause death.

How You Get Tested For It

A qualified medical professional will take a blood sample and send it to a labaratory for one of two tests, the Western Blot test or the ELISA test. These tests are often done sequentially to verify the previous readings. In most cases the results are returned in about three days but it can take up to two weeks. The test can be done in a physician's office, a local clinic, or a specific testing center. These can be found in the local phone book.

There are two ways to be tested, anonymously or confidentially. Anonymous testing does not require a name. The patient is given a number for follow-up and test results. Confidential testing requires a name, but results and information ares not to be given out without the patients consent. Some states, not all, offer both types of testing. Check with a local hotline or medical society to find out what is available in your area.


There are a number of antiviral drugs available to slow the progression (increase of virus in the body) of the disease. These can be used alone or in combination. A healthcare provider can optimize a plan to meet each person specific needs. There are also a growing number of therapies available to combat the other infections that attack the body.

If Left Untreated

The disease can progress faster and the patient is more likely to experience other infections sooner.


To find out more about the HIV disease, contact a qualified medical professional; a local AIDS Support Organization (ASO); or other qualified person. If in doubt about a partner, assume that protection is required. Condoms have demonstrated an ability to reduce the transmission of the HIV virus when used properly. For further information on risk factors, see section on Safe Sex.


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