HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus attacks and gradually destroys your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight infections. With a weakened immune system, your body is more vulnerable to deadly infections and cancers.
Once a person is infected, HIV remains in the body for the rest of their life. The blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk of people with HIV have been scientifically shown to transmit HIV infection to others.
Some people with HIV infection — especially those who don't receive treatment — will eventually develop AIDS. The good news: There are effective treatments that can reduce your viral load to nearly undetectable levels, as well as delay or prevent the progression to AIDS.
If you have an undetectable viral load, that means you are no longer infectious. Because there isn't enough HIV in your body fluids to transmit, you have zero risk of passing on HIV to partners during sex.
Risk Factors for HIV
Those who have the highest risk of getting HIV include the following:
- Intravenous drug users who share needles
- Babies born to HIV-positive mothers who did not get HIV therapy during pregnancy
- People who have sex without using a barrier method of protection (e.g., dental dams or condoms), especially with many different partners (although you can get HIV from a single sexual encounter or partner)
- People who received blood transfusions or clotting products between 1977 and 1985
You cannot get HIV from the following:
- Casual physical contact (e.g., hugging, kissing on the cheek, shaking hands)
- Mosquito bites
- The sweat of an HIV-positive person
- Touching objects that have been touched by a person with HIV
- The saliva of an HIV-positive person
Symptoms may not show up for many years after a person becomes infected with HIV. That's why it’s important to get tested if you know or think you have been exposed.
The following symptoms can be related to HIV infection:
- Frequent vaginal yeast infections
- Mouth sores, including yeast infection
- Rashes, including seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis
- Persistent sore throat
- Swollen lymph glands
How Can I Find Out if I Have HIV Infection?
If you have been exposed to HIV or think you may have been, talk to your primary care doctor right away so you can be tested.
HIV/AIDS Treatment at Rush
Rush offers prevention, treatment, screening, counseling and other vital services for people with HIV and their families through the HIV Treatment Program.
There is no cure for HIV. But treatment can reduce your viral load to undetectable levels, so you are no longer considered infectious. Treatment can also help prevent serious complications from HIV, and delay or keep you from developing AIDS.
If you are HIV positive and are pregnant, it is important to receive treatment to reduce the chance that you'll pass the infection to your unborn child.
Your Rush treatment plan may include the following:
At Rush, our goal is to get your viral load down to undetectable levels using a combination of antiviral drugs (also referred to as a "cocktail," combined antiretroviral therapy, or cART) that prevent the HIV virus from replicating in the body.
These medications offer the following benefits:
- If taken every day, they allow the immune system to recover by reducing the amount of virus in the body. In some cases, the amount of virus in the body is so low that it cannot be detected.
- Antiviral medications also help keep the immune system from being destroyed.
Preventing HIV with PrEP
Physicians at Rush are experienced with the use of PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, for people who are at high risk for contracting HIV.
When taken consistently, this combination of the HIV drugs tenofovir and emtricitabine can dramatically reduce your chances of HIV infection.
These are some reasons you may benefit from PrEP:
- You have multiple sexual partners
- You are in a relationship with an HIV-positive partner
- You are an intravenous drug user and share needles
Your care team will evaluate whether PrEP is a good option for you (if you are at high risk) or your partner (if you have HIV).
Treatment for Resistant HIV
If your HIV becomes resistant to some medications, other types of drugs are available. Your care team will discuss the options with you.
Specialized Care for Neurological Complications of HIV
Rush University Medical Center has a program devoted to caring for people with neurological complications of infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Thirty to 50% of people with HIV/AIDS experience neurological complications. These include damage to the brain, spinal cord and nerves.
You can experience neurological complications of HIV infection in various ways. The most common symptoms include the following:
- Forgetfulness or mental slowing
- Inability to concentrate or apathy
- Visual or auditory problems
- Convulsions, seizures
- Weakness or paralysis
- Poor coordination or instability while walking
- Numb or burning feet
- Headache or stiff neck
Doctors in Rush University Medical Center's Neuroinfectious Diseases Program will work with you — and other specialists at Rush as needed — to address these complications.
Rush Excellence in HIV
- Compassionate HIV care: The HIV Treatment Program at Rush University Medical Center offers dedicated care for people with HIV infection and AIDS. From medical evaluations and treatment to education to infusion therapy services, we can help you cope with the disease and navigate the challenges of an HIV diagnosis.
- A leader in HIV research: Rush University Medical Center is one of the leading centers in the U.S. for research aimed at preventing, detecting and treating HIV infection and AIDS. In fact, we have been an HIV/AIDS clinical trials site for the National Institutes of Health since 1987, so you will have access to new treatment opportunities before they are widely available.
- Helping you address other conditions and HIV complications: Rush specialists have expertise caring for patients with HIV who also have other serious health issues, like hepatitis or organ failure. And our neuroinfectious disease providers can help you if you are experiencing neurological complications from your HIV, such as neuropathy, HIV-associated dementia or brain infections.