The days of school kids calling each other AIDS are over, because unfortunately, kids don’t know what AIDS is any more.

HIV infections are growing at a terrifying rate since the campaigns of the 80s ended and there are a whole lotta youngsters out there who have no idea what HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is, what it can do to them, and how they can contract it.

HIV is an incurable virus contracted via body fluids, particularly blood and sexual fluids like semen and vaginal secretions. It attacks your immune system, leaving you open to whatever germs are floating around. This is the part called AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), though it is now called late-stage HIV infection now.

These days, so long as you have enough money to pay for it or a free healthcare system, you don’t usually die from it, and can live a perfectly happy life (albeit often bareback-free!).

Any sexually active person is susceptible to HIV infection, but particularly vulnerable are women and gay men, who both act as receptacles for virus-infected blood and semen.

It is much harder for a man to contract HIV off a woman with vaginal sex, but it definitely still happens. You can also become infected with HIV via shared needles, open wounds or other more rare methods.

HIV and babies

If you are pregnant, you should be tested as a matter of course if you are able because these days, amazingly, they can save your baby from contracting it off you even though it is growing inside you and sharing your blood.

Having a caesarian is usually advised to reduce during-birth trauma risks. Breastfeeding can occasionally pass the virus on, but bottle feeding takes care of that very easily.

If you find out early enough, life can be just fine, with a few minor side-effects from antiretroviral therapy (ART) drugs. Ok, sometimes they are not so minor, but still: you don’t need to die from it.

If you are sleeping with someone who hasn’t been tested recently, and who is or has been sleeping with other people, always use condoms. Get regular tests.

The scientific stuff

HIV is a retrovirus that attacks your CD4 T cells, which are white blood cells, part of your immune system.

HIV multiplies within these cells, and so cannot be destroyed by them: they live inside the cells that would normally kill them. This is pretty tricky, but also quite unfortunate, as it makes HIV difficult to treat as it keeps on changing the coating of the cell.

It sort of wears an invisibility suit. Once your immune system is weakened, you can catch just about everything, making it important to take the ART drugs.

If you have HIV, it does not mean you will get AIDS; AIDS is unlikely to eventuate if you are treated early enough with ART drugs. There is almost always a bit of a lag, even if you don’t know you have HIV, between becoming infected with HIV, and AIDS developing.

This is because it takes quite some time for the CD4 T cells to reduce in number, and make your immunity drop.

Contracting HIV through sex

You can give HIV to other people even if you have no symptoms via unprotected sex and blood. The virus goes in through the flesh in the vagina, rectum, penis, vulva or mouth during sex, though oral sex has a much lower risk of infection unless you have ulcers or bleeding gums.

Giving an infected man oral sex if you have a sore throat can do it. Kissing, sneezing and spitting does not pass HIV on. The good germs in your vagina protect you from HIV, so make sure they are in good order.

Other ways to contract HIV are sharing needles for using drugs, but needle-sharing programs have vastly reduced this as a transmission method. Success! Needle sharing programs work.

In the past, before anyone really knew about it, HIV was passed on via blood transfusions, but mandatory testing of donated blood in developed countries has put this to an end.

Developing countries still have this as an issue, because they need the blood but can’t afford to have it tested. Rule here? Watch out where you get your blood transfusions from!

Who contracts HIV?

When HIV broke out in the 80s, it was known as ‘the gay disease’ because it predominantly affected gay men who were having unsafe sex. Gay men often have a great deal of sex, often with multiple partners in short spaces of time, which means that the spread of HIV was fast and brutal.

Of course it wasn’t just gay men who were affected, because in the 80s there were still a lot of gay men who were married with children. Now in the UK 9 out of every 20 new infections is in a straight guy and 9 out of 20 is a gay guy.

In Australia, there are about 1,500 new cases of HIV per year which is a very high statistic. This is rising. The UK had 8,000 new cases in 2006, and this has reduced to 6,660 in 2010.

In the United States there are 50,000 new infections each year, but in total there are over 170,000 people living with HIV who don’t know about it.

Make sure you’re not sleeping with one of them! There are some pretty horrible statistics with HIV which include the millions of people who die from AIDS every year. Millions!

It’s outrageous, considering how cheap condoms are and how ‘everyone knows’ you can contract it.

What happens inside your body?

Once inside the CD4 T cells the virus makes a copy of itself, and the new virus ‘bit’ breaks out of the old cell, killing the cell. The new virus then goes into a new CD4 T cell, and the same thing keeps happening.

Every day millions of virus ‘bits’ are made inside the CD4 T cells, and every day millions of cells die. Your body, being the trooper it is, makes more and more CD4 T cells, though over time, your body becomes exhausted and your immune system starts to fail.

This usually takes a little while. You notice then because you start to catch bugs that would normally pass you by. You become like an open wound.

Symptoms of HIV infection

If you have been infected, you will get some symptoms, maybe. Most people do, but not everyone. The three most common symptoms are a sore throat, fever and blotchy red rash.

These can extend to feeling sick, diarrhoea, headache, feeling tired and achy, with swollen glands. These look just like an ordinary flu, but can last up to three weeks.

Swollen lymph glands and night sweats may hang around. Once this part is done for, you may be symptom-free for years, which is why people can go for a long time without realising anything is wrong.

Sometimes you’ll get mouth ulcers, recurring herpes or shingles infections, or dermatitis. If you had tuberculosis (TB) at some point in the past, it may flare up again. Signs that AIDS may be impending are diarrhoea, rashes, feeling tired and losing weight.

Living with HIV

If you are treated early enough, HIV does not develop into AIDS. AIDS basically looks like a person who gets sick with everything, including fungal infections. That can make you feel pretty crap.

If you do develop AIDS, life can feel pretty grim. Children tend to suffer more, because their already-underdeveloped immune system gets bombarded.

Getting tested for HIV

You can test for the infection from one month after you get infected, which is an improvement on old tests, which took three months. Sexual health clinics often offer a fast service, with 30-minute turnaround, but otherwise the results will be back within a week.

Everyone, but especially gay and bisexual men, are recommended to get tested at least once a year if they have sex without a condom, multiple partners, have been diagnosed with another STI, or develop suspicious symptoms.

Treatment of HIV

Antiretroviral medications slow down the HIV virus’s ability to replicate. They all work in a different way, but that is the ultimate goal. This treatment also reduces the risk of passing the virus on.

Taking three medicines is better than just taking one or two, and helps reduce virus resistance. There is now a pill you can take that has the three medicines in it. You are given medicine when your CD4 T cell count goes below a certain level (350 cells per c/ml of blood or less).

Side-effects of HIV meds

Side effects include nausea, vomiting and headaches.

Outlook for life with HIV

The virus keeps on mutating and changing, and it’s even possible to be infected with two different strains at once. A look at life expectancy in men infected with HIV at age 30 found they could expect to live to 75.

Anyone diagnosed late typically has a less cheery outlook, but treatments are improving all the time. If you smoke, love booze, drugs and fast cars, you may be weakening your system further and if you want to live, might wish to examine lifestyle habits.

If you have been diagnosed with HIV, find your local support centre online or in the white pages. If you have an HIV-related vagina question, we’d love to hear from you! Write and tell us your story.

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Jessica Lloyd - Vulvovaginal Specialist Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica is a degree-qualified naturopath (BHSc) specialising in vulvovaginal health and disease, based in Melbourne, Australia.

Jessica is the owner and lead naturopath of My Vagina, and is a member of the:

  • International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease (ISSVD)
  • International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH)
  • National Vulvodynia Association (NVA) Australia
  • New Zealand Vulvovaginal Society (ANZVS)
  • Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS)