What is HIV?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is a virus that weakens your immune system, eventually making your body incapable of combating infections effectively. Without treatment, an HIV infection will ultimately lead to AIDS: a complete collapse of your immune system. This is what happens inside your body when you are infected with HIV:

Progress of an HIV infection:

  1. HIV penetrates your CD4 cells.
  2. HIV uses your CD4 cells to replicate itself.
  3. The CD4 cells that have been used to replicate HIV die off.
  4. The number of your CD4 cells decreases, your immune system becomes weaker and you start getting symptoms.

An HIV infection can have various different symptoms and lead to health problems. Not everyone will recognise these symptoms and health problems as being indicative of HIV. That is why it is important to be alert to them. Only an HIV test can show if you have HIV.

You can keep your immune system intact as much as possible by starting treatment with HIV medications as soon as possible. Thanks to the treatment, your immune system will recover, and you can grow old with HIV. Another advantage of getting treatment is that it will practically eliminate your chances of passing on your HIV to others.

 

Progress of HIV

1: Infection with HIV

HIV is an infectious disease. This means that you can get HIV from someone who is carrying the virus inside him. HIV is transmitted during sex if the mucous membranes of your penis or your anus come into contact with sperm, blood, anal secretions and/or precum (preseminal fluid) that contain HIV. Do you have tiny sores inside your mouth or a sore throat? In that case you will run a greater risk of getting HIV if you get sperm in your mouth.

HIV penetrates your CD4 cells.

After the initial infection, HIV penetrates white blood cells of a certain type: the CD4 cells. These cells are essential for your immune system's response to normal infections. The first couple of weeks after infection you normally won't notice that HIV is already establishing itself in your body. If symptoms do become noticeable, that will normally happen between two and eight weeks after you were infected with HIV. The symptoms resemble those of the flu.

2: HIV uses your CD4 cells to replicate itself.

HIV can replicate itself very effectively in CD4 cells. After replication, the new HIV viruses leave the CD4 cells to enter the bloodstream in search of other CD4 cells that they can use to replicate themselves further.

3: Once they have been used to replicate HIV, the individual CD4 cells die off.

After having replicated HIV, a CD4 cell will explode and die. As a result, the number of CD4 cells in your body will decrease over time. But your body needs CD4 cells in order to defend itself against all kinds of other infections.

4: As the number of CD4 cells decreases, you start to get symptoms.

Initially your body is able to replenish CD4 cells for quite some time. But at a certain point it will become unable to do that. It can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to reach that point. From then on, the number of CD4 cells in your body will decrease. Your immunity to a variety of infections will weaken.

Treatment for HIV: if you take HIV medications, you will remain healthy

Without treatment, an HIV infection will ultimately lead to AIDS: a complete collapse of your immune system. The treatment consists of a combination of HIV inhibitors. The HIV medications keep down the number of HIV particles in your body. The effectiveness of your treatment is measured by looking at both the amount of virus in your blood (your “viral load”) and the number of CD4 immune cells you have. If treated, you will not become ill and you will have about the same life expectancy as others your age who do not have HIV and who are otherwise healthy. Another advantage of receiving effective treatment is that it will very strongly reduce your chances of transmitting the virus to other people.

Dormant HIV

Not every HIV particle will replicate itself. Some may also “hide” within non-active or “dormant” CD4 immune cells. Since those cells are dormant, the HIV they contain is also dormant. The immune cells that store the dormant virus in this way are known as “viral reservoirs”:

  • HIV inhibitors cannot reach those reservoirs.
  • Dormant virus can sometimes “wake up” and start replicating itself.
  • If you stop with the treatment, the virus will quickly spread in your body.

 

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