Testing HIV Positive: What You Should Know
November 30, 1999
Since you are reading this, your doctor or a health department counselor has probably told you that your blood test for HIV (the virus which causes AIDS) is positive. In other words, you are infected with the virus, and now you may have many questions about what this means.
This will answer some of those questions and give you suggestions about "What do I do now?" There are also phone numbers for agencies that will offer more help (often free of charge) and answer other questions you may have. All of the agencies are sensitive to your need to keep this information private.
What Is HIV?
The complete name for HIV is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. After a person is infected with HIV, the virus begins to attack the T-cells, types of white blood cells that make up part of the body's immune system.
How Does the Immune System Work?
The "immune system" is many different parts of the body working together to fight germs, viruses, and other organisms which can make us sick.
T-cells and B-cells are types of blood cells that are part of the immune system. When a germ or virus enters the body, each of these cells has different jobs to keep us from becoming ill.
What Happens to the T-Cells?
HIV can live in the blood for up to ten years or more before you feel sick. Once HIV begins to cause problems, it actually kills the T-cells, causing the immune system to become too weak to fight illnesses to which we are exposed. Why HIV destroys the T-cells is not fully known yet. For many people who are infected, HIV will enter the T-cell and begin to multiply. This continues slowly until the cell wall breaks and new HIVs enter the blood and attack more T-cells. As the T-cells are killed, the body is unable to "tell" the B-cells to fight off the common germs and viruses to which we are exposed. Eventually, most people become ill.
AZT and ddI are medicines used at this point because they act as a barrier between HIV and the T-cell. They slow down the destruction of T-cells and let the body and the immune system regain strength.
How is HIV Transmitted?
HIV is spread in only a few ways:
Once HIV enters the blood, it attaches to the T-cells. HIV may live like this without causing any noticeable medical problems for up to ten years or more. However, during this time HIV also attaches to other T-cells found in semen (cum) in men and vaginal secretions in women. Any behavior that allows these three fluids infected with HIV into the body of another person puts the second person at risk of infection. If someone is infected with HIV, they can infect others, even during all the years they look and feel healthy.
What Are the First Symptoms?
Symptoms can be very similar to having a cold or the flu, and only a doctor can tell the difference. Some people get very tired, lose weight, or develop a low, constant fever. Others might get white, patchy spots in the mouth or on the tongue. Some people develop blurred vision, mental confusion, or chronic (long-term) diarrhea. Obviously, some of these are problems we all have at one time or another. The difference for someone with HIV is that symptoms continue a long time and are hard to treat.
What Does the "AIDS Test" Do?
The "AIDS Test" is NOT a test for AIDS, but for the antibodies to HIV. A specific test to find the HIV itself is not yet available for regular use.
Two separate tests, the ELISA and the Western Blot, are run from one blood sample. The ELISA is very sensitive and can confuse other proteins for HIV antibodies. Therefore, any positive ELISA test is immediately re-checked with a Western Blot (a more specific test) to be sure that only HIV antibodies are identified. This makes sure the test is as accurate as possible.
When antibodies are found, it means HIV is also in the blood. Research shows that, from the time a person is infected with HIV, it takes about 6 to 12 weeks for antibodies to develop and be found in the blood. This is why you were probably asked about the last time you had any "high risk behavior" (usually sexual intercourse or needle-sharing), or you were asked to return at a later date for a second test. This allowed the antibodies time to form in the blood if you were recently infected.
Having a "positive" HIV test does NOT mean you have full AIDS. AIDS is a severe medical condition which is more serious than just HIV Infection alone.
What Happens Next?
Once you learn HIV is in your blood, it is very important to find a doctor or clinic that understands HIV. Your main goal is to stay as healthy as possible, because your good health can help keep HIV from killing the T-cells. The following list describes things you can do to keep healthy longer.
What Else Should I Do?
Talk to your doctor or clinic about getting a TB skin test and a special blood test to check your T-cell count. The more T-cells your blood loses, the greater your risk of developing more serious diseases that lead to full AIDS.
Most of all, remember that there are many people who care about you, your questions, and your health. Please call the agency listed below if you are in Tennessee or call CDC hotline at 800-CDC-INFO (open 24 hours). You are not alone.
This brochure was provided by the Tennessee Department of Health Support Services.
For AIDS information in Tennessee call 1-800-525-AIDS.
This article was provided by Tennessee Department of Health AIDS Support Services.