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What You Need to Know About HIV and AIDS

If you are going to be caring for someone with HIV infection, you need to understand the basic facts about HIV and AIDS. AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is caused by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). People who are infected with HIV can look and feel healthy and may not know for years that they are infected. However, they can infect other people no matter how healthy they seem. HIV slowly wipes out parts of the body's immune system; then the HIV-infected person gets sick because the body can't fight off diseases. Some of these diseases can kill them.

Signs of HIV infection are like those of many other common illnesses, such as swollen glands, tiring easily, losing weight, fever, or diarrhea. Different people have different symptoms.

HIV is in people's blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk. The only way to tell if someone is infected with HIV is with a blood test.

There is no vaccine to prevent HIV infection and no cure for AIDS. There are treatments that can keep infected people healthy longer and prevent diseases that people with AIDS often get. Research is ongoing.

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HIV slowly makes an infected person sicker and sicker. Diseases and infections will cause serious illness, but people often get better -- until the next illness. Sometimes, HIV can damage the brain and cause changes in feelings and moods, even make it hard to think clearly. Someone with AIDS can feel fine in the morning and be very sick in the afternoon. It can seem like riding a roller coaster, slowly climbing up to feeling good, then plunging down into another illness.


How HIV is Spread

The most common ways HIV is spread are:

  • By having unprotected anal, vaginal, or oral sex with one who is infected with HIV

  • By sharing needles or syringes ("works") with someone who is infected with HIV

  • From mothers to their babies before the baby is born, during birth, or through breast-feeding. Taking the drug AZT during pregnancy can reduce the changes of infecting the baby by two-thirds, but will not prevent all babies from becoming infected with HIV.

Earlier in the AIDS epidemic some people became infected through blood transfusions, blood products (such as clotting factors given to people with hemophilia), or organ or tissue transplants. This has been very rare in the United States since 1985, when the test for HIV was licensed. Since then, all donated blood and donors of organs or tissue are tested for HIV.

Health care workers, such as nurses, risk getting infected if they are stuck with a needle containing infected blood or splashed with infected blood in the eyes, nose, mouth, or on open cuts or sores. In a few cases, a person sharing a house with a person with HIV infection or taking care of a person with AIDS has become infected themselves. These infections may have been caused by sharing a razor, getting blood from the infected person into open cuts or sores, or some other way of having contact with blood from the infected person. If you are taking care of a person with HIV infection, carefully follow the steps on protecting yourself from infection discussed later.


How HIV is NOT Spread

You don't get HIV from the air, food, water, insects, animals, dishes, knives, forks, spoons, toilet seats, or anything else that doesn't involve blood, semen, vaginal fluids, or breast milk. You don't get HIV from feces, nasal fluid, saliva, sweat, tears, urine, or vomit, unless these have blood mixed in them. You can help people with HIV eat, dress, even bathe, without becoming infected yourself, as long as you follow the steps described later in the section on "Protecting Yourself" later in this brochure. You do get other germs from many of the things listed above, so do use common sense.




  
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This article was provided by AIDSinfo. It is a part of the publication Caring for Someone With AIDS at Home. Visit the AIDSinfo website to find out more about their activities and publications.
 

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