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A Guide to Coping with HIV/AIDS
The human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is a lentivirus that gradually damages the immune system as the virus attacks and lowers the number of healthy immune cells. These immune cells, referred to as CD4 cells, help protect your body from germs that cause infections and make you sick. These opportunistic infections take advantage of the body’s weakened defenses. AIDS is short for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The condition is non-hereditary and results from direct contact with an HIV-infected person or agent. If someone is HIV positive, this does not mean that they have developed AIDS: HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, and AIDS is the condition diagnosed in an individual when one tests positive for HIV and develops an opportunistic infection. Without treatment for HIV, CD4 cells will continue to be destroyed until the body has too few CD4 cells left. When AIDS develops, the body is at high risk for acquiring a variety of serious infections and cancers. While there is currently no cure for HIV or AIDS, early treatment can help delay the transition from HIV to AIDS.
HIV lives in an infected person’s bodily fluids: semen, vaginal fluids, and blood. While it is possible to transmit HIV to another person with non-sexual contact, the risk is very low. A person can generally become infected with HIV in one of three ways. Having sex with an infected person is the most common way to get HIV, and condoms do not always stop the spread of the disease. Using syringes or needles that have been used by someone with HIV can also transmit the disease. The final way that HIV can be spread is through exposure of a fetus or infant to a mother with HIV. Pregnant women who are HIV positive can infect their babies before birth as well as through breastfeeding after birth. The combination of antiretroviral drugs and a caesarean section is usually used by doctors to reduce the rate of mother-to-baby HIV transmissions.
Currently, there is no functional cure for HIV or AIDS, meaning that there is no medication or procedure that has been proven to eliminate the virus from the body. There have, however, been many advances in HIV treatments and therapies that allow people with HIV and AIDS to live longer, healthier lives. Doctors are close to finding a cure for the virus, at least for newborns. Timothy Brown, known as the “Berlin patient,” lives HIV-free today after being “cured” of the virus in 2007. Since then, two babies have been cured of the virus after they were given high doses of antiretroviral drugs immediately after birth.
If you are living with HIV or AIDS, it’s important to find ways to cope with your illness. It’s critical to find a circle of support that will help you through the emotional and physical issues you will face. While you may feel overwhelmed, it’s essential to continue working with your health care provider to slow down the condition as much as possible. Treatments for HIV can carry risks and complications, but many are effective.
Remember that life does not end with a diagnosis of HIV or AIDS. In fact, people with HIV can live long, healthy lives when the disease is managed from early on. Taking care of your overall health can help immensely in controlling the disease. Continue to get regular medical checkups, eat a healthy diet, and exercise regularly. Avoid bad habits that can put your health further at risk, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and recreational drug use. Also, practice safe sex to protect others from getting HIV and to protect yourself from acquiring other sexually-transmitted diseases. Many people with HIV and AIDS find comfort from joining a support group. Discussing your feelings, symptoms, and lifestyle with other people in similar situations can help you feel better about yourself and can push you toward finding a new life focus. Finding out that you have HIV or AIDS can be scary. By understanding your diagnosis, finding support, and taking care of yourself, you can be better equipped to deal with whatever your condition presents in the future.