HIV Basics

HIV is a community issue and one that still generates a great deal of misunderstanding and stigma. However, we are in this together more than alone. Each individual can take proper steps in knowing their own status and remaining safe to help stop the spread of HIV. Common misconceptions and fears are huge roadblocks in the fight against this disease but prevention and education is critical. In this section, you can learn more about how HIV is transmitted and how to reduce your, or others, risk of being infected.

What is HIV?

Human – because the virus can only infect human beings. Although similar diseases exist in other animals, such as monkeys and cats, those viruses cannot infect humans nor can HIV infect other animals.

Immunodeficiency – because the virus creates a deficiency with the body's immune system, causing it to fail to work properly.

Virus – because the organism is a virus which is incapable of reproducing by itself; it must use a human cell to reproduce.

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that affects certain white blood cells—CD4 T cells—that manage human immune system responses. When these blood cells are damaged, it becomes difficult for people to fight off infections or diseases. This condition is called "HIV disease."

What is HIV disease?
We tend to think of "disease" in simple terms: infection equals illness. It's a little different with HIV since the virus can cause slow, subtle damage to the immune system long before an infected person will feel ill. Most health care providers use the term "HIV disease" to identify the variety of changes a person may experience, from initial infection to more advanced stages of serious, life–threatening illness. The term describes the medical condition of anyone infected with the virus, regardless of his or her symptoms.
What does AIDS stand for?

Acquired – because HIV is not a condition passed on genetically; a person has to become infected with it.

Immune – because the immune system's ability to fight off viruses and bacteria becomes much less effective.

Deficiency – because the immune system fails to work properly.

Syndrome – because there is a wide range of diseases and infections a person may experience. When HIV disease was first recognized in the early 1980s, it was called AIDS. Today, the term "HIV disease" is a more accurate description of the condition. However, AIDS still used, primarily for the purpose of counting infections and as a description for advanced–stages of HIV disease. AIDS refers to individuals who have particular "AIDS–defining" conditions such as a very low CD4 white blood cell or specific illnesses.

How does HIV cause illnesses?

HIV reproduces continuously in the body from the first day of infection. A person who is infected with HIV will typically produce about 10 billion new HIV particles each day, and about 2 billion virus–fighting immune system cells—CD4 T cells—are produced and destroyed.

A person's immune system attacks HIV soon after infection, and at first is able to clear a large amount of virus from the body every 24 hours. However, for each virus particle cleared, at least one new one is created. The body's initial, vigorous anti–HIV response creates a temporary equilibrium between immune cells and the virus that may last for months or years.

Typically, a person will show no outward signs of illness during this time, except for severe flu–like symptoms after the initial infection as a sign that the immune system is kicking–in to fight off HIV.

Over time, however, the virus gains the upper hand. The amount of HIV in the body (viral load) increases and the CD4 T cell count declines.

The immune system cannot work properly under constant attack from HIV. Eventually, the virus overwhelms the defenses of the immune system, which then can no longer ward off other illness–causing infections, some of which can be life threatening.

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