Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, is a virus that weakens the immune system by destroying cells that fight disease and infection. While there’s currently no cure, today’s medications can help lower the amount of HIV in your system to a point where it is undetectable, allowing you to lead a long, healthy life.
Undetectable = Untransmittable
The goal of treatment is to lower the level of HIV in your blood to the point where it can’t be detected in a blood test. This is known as undetectable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), those who reach and stay undetectable after 6 months of HIV treatment have effectively no risk of transmitting the virus through sex.*
*Maintaining a viral load of <200 copies/mL does not prevent acquisition or transmission of other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Talk with your doctor about ways to reduce the risk of STIs.
Some people experience symptoms after contracting an HIV infection, while others don’t experience any symptoms. Regardless of how you feel, getting tested is the only way to be sure of your HIV status.
These tests look for antibodies that your immune system has made to try to protect you after HIV exposure. Tests use blood or saliva samples and usually provide results in 30 minutes.
In addition to testing for antibodies, these tests also look for antigens, which are molecules that activate your immune system when HIV is present. You can get results from these tests in about 30 minutes.
Nucleic Acid Tests (NAT)
An NAT can tell whether you have HIV, as well as how much of the virus is in your body. This is also called a viral load test and results can take several days to receive.
Talk to your doctor about which test is right for you.
Stages of HIV.
Being HIV positive does not mean you have AIDS. With the right treatment, you can live a full life with HIV and never develop AIDS. Here’s how the disease progresses:
Acute HIV infection.
Within 2-4 weeks after infection, some people may experience flu-like symptoms while others won’t feel sick at all. So even if you feel alright, it’s important to get tested if you think you may have been exposed to HIV.
Chronic HIV infection.
Eventually, the amount of HIV in your blood (viral load) goes up, and the amount of CD4+ white blood cells that fight infections goes down. However, taking HIV medication as prescribed can lower your viral load and prevent HIV from progressing to stage 3.
Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
HIV can turn into AIDS if your CD4+ cell count falls below 200 cells/mm3 or if you develop certain infections. However, starting treatment right away and staying on treatment as prescribed can prevent HIV from turning into AIDS.