HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a sexually transmitted disease that weakens the immune system by destroying cells that fight infections and diseases. There’s no cure for HIV, but it is possible to manage the condition with proper medical care.
Some people are more vulnerable to HIV due to many factors, such as numerous sex partners and risky behavior.
We’re going to take a closer look at how HIV is transmitted, the most common signs and your testing options.
What is HIV?
HIV is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system, the CD4 cells in particular. When left untreated, this disease reduces the number of CD4 cells in the body. Eventually, the disease can progress to the point where the body can no longer fight off infections and disease.
Scientists have identified a specific type of chimpanzee in Central Africa as being the root source of the HIV infection. It is believed that the chimpanzee of the virus, known as SIV, was transmitted to humans and mutated into HIV.
Research suggests that this disease may have spread from apes to humans as far back as the 1800s. Over time, the virus spread throughout Africa and eventually, into other parts of the world. In the United States, the virus has existed since the late 1970s.
The 3 Stages of HIV
Those who become infected with this disease and fail to get treatment will typically go through three stages. These stages include:
- Acute Infection
About two to four weeks after becoming infected with HIV, you may experience flu-like symptoms. These symptoms can persist for several weeks, and is the body’s natural response to the infection.
At this stage, the infected person has a large amount of the virus in the body, and is incredibly contagious.
Some people in the first stage may not even realize they’re sick, which makes it easy to spread the disease to others.
- Clinical Latency
The second stage is often called clinical latency, and at this point, the virus goes into a dormant stage. While still active, the virus reproduces at a much slower pace.
If taking medication to control the progress of this disease, a person may remain in the second stage for several decades. However, the disease can still be spread at this point.
If the disease has not been diagnosed yet, a person can remain in this stage for a decade or longer, but most will progress through the second stage much quicker. Towards the end of this phase, the CD4 count starts to drop and the viral load spikes. Symptoms may start emerging as they progress into the final stage.
AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is the final and most severe stage of HIV. Those who reach this stage will have extremely damaged immune systems, which leads to frequent illnesses. The final stage is reached when the CD4 count drops below 200 cells/mm.
Without proper treatment, the survival rate is three years.
How Is HIV Transmitted?
HIV is spread through the sharing of body fluids, which means you can only transmit this disease through very specific activities.
Most people get HIV through:
- Sexual activity, including sexual intercourse and anal sex
- Syringe use by sharing needles
The virus spreads through bodily fluids, including:
- Rectal fluids
- Pre-seminal fluids
- Breast milk
- Vaginal fluids
To contract the disease, these fluids must come in contact with damaged tissue or a mucous membrane. It can also be injected directly into the bloodstream through syringes.
You cannot get HIV from:
- Shaking hands
- Sharing toilets
- Sharing dishes
- Closed-mouth kissing
- Mosquitoes or other insects
- Sweat, tears or saliva that is not mixed with HIV-infected blood
While not impossible, contracting HIV from oral sex is rare.
Most Common Signs of HIV
When first infected with HIV, the virus can cause a variety of symptoms that persist for several weeks. Once those symptoms dissipate, the person usually progresses into the second stage of the disease if no treatment is sought.
Early symptoms of HIV include:
- Night sweats
- HIV rash
- Mouth ulcers
- Sore throat
- Muscle aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
In the second stage of the disease, the virus goes dormant and the infected person may not experience any symptoms.
Once the final stage is reached (AIDS), symptoms progress rapidly and include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Rapid weight loss
- Recurring fever
- Severe night sweats
- Skin discoloration
- Prolonged swelling of the lymph glands
- Memory loss
HIV symptoms in women are the same as symptoms of HIV in men, and they can often be confused with other illnesses. The only way to know for sure whether HIV is causing your symptoms is to get tested.
How is HIV Diagnosed?
The most common way to diagnose HIV is through a blood test. These tests check for antibodies that your body naturally produces to fight off the virus.
When to Test for HIV
When should you get tested for HIV? Anytime is a good time, but if you recently had unprotected sex or think you may have been exposed to the virus, get tested right away.
- Anyone who is sexually active with multiple partners should get tested for HIV.
- Even if you are monogamous with your partner, testing is still advised, especially if one (or both) partners have strayed from the relationship.
- If you share needles with others, get tested right away.
Generally speaking, anyone who is sexually active is at risk for contracting HIV, and testing is recommended at least once per year.
Types of HIV Tests
There are several different types of tests that can detect HIV. Antibody tests are the most common, while antigen tests are now rare. The most common test types include:
ELSA stands for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. If this test comes back positive, the Western blot test is typically administered to confirm the test’s results.
If the results come back negative but you believe you may have been exposed to HIV, it is important to get re-tested again in three months.
Rapid HIV Test
The rapid test is an immunoassay used to screen for HIV and delivers quick results, typically in 30 minutes. Rapid tests use either oral or blood fluid to check for HIV antibodies.
False-negatives are possible with this test if performed during the dormant phase and before the test can find any antibodies.
An RNA test looks for the virus directly, rather than looking for HIV antibodies. These tests can detect HIV in as little as 10 days after exposure. As soon as the virus appears in the bloodstream, this test can pick it up – even before antibodies are created.
Over the Counter HIV Test
There are several different options for HIV home testing, these include:
OraQuick In-Home HIV Test
A rapid at home HIV test that delivers results in 20 minutes. The test involves swabbing the mouth for oral fluid and using the included kit to test the saliva.
If the results are positive, a follow up test will be required.
Tests that check oral fluids typically detect the infection in later stages after exposure. For this reason, 1 in 12 people may get a false negative result and we do not recommend this test to our readers. We have heard too many horror stories from consumers that thought they got a false negative report and went on to infect others.
Home Access HIV-1 Test System
The Home Access system is an at-home kit that gathers a sample by having you prick your finger. Unlike the previous test, this over the counter system actually tests your blood, which means the results are less likely to be a false negative. With that said, this test still detects the virus much later than other blood tests.
Once the blood sample is collected, it must be sent to a licensed laboratory, and the person taking the test will need to call the facility to receive the results. Results can be in as little as one day after the laboratory receives the sample.
If the test is positive, a follow-up test will be required. Counseling is offered to those who test positive as well as referrals for treatment.
HIV RNA Early Detection Test
This option can detect infection as early as 9 days after exposure. This RNA Test is the only FDA-approved Early Detection test in the US. By looking for the presence of HIV RNA in plasma, it does not rely on antibodies in the blood. This makes this HIV RNA test the most sensitive and accurate early detection test in the world. We recommend this type of testing over the OraQuick or Home Access versions.
Where to Buy HIV Test Kit
HIV test kits can be purchased online from a variety retailers, but most consumers prefer to order online to keep things discreet. Our research has shown that STDCheck.com offer the best prices and convenience for getting tested. Better yet, they offer our preferred HIV RNA Early Detection Test for as cheap as $175 and can be ordered online 24/7.
Wherever you choose to purchase from, it’s important to ensure that you buy from a reputable source and that the test is legitimate. The key is to make sure you get tested as soon as possible if you think you may have been exposed.