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Coping with AIDS and HIV

AIDS, HIV: getting tested for AIDS, signs and symptoms of AIDS, treatment for AIDS, psychiatric reactions due to HIV disease. Visit HealthyPlace.com Gender Community.Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The virus attacks and eventually destroys certain white blood cells, which are a part of the body's immune system that we need to fight off infections. The immune system makes antibodies to combat the HIV virus. Their presence in the blood can be measured. If a person has antibodies, they are called "HIV positive" because they have been infected with the HIV virus. However, the person may remain healthy for a long time, even many years. AIDS is the late stage of the illness known as HIV disease, and occurs when so many white blood cells have been destroyed that the immune system cannot do its job well. The person with AIDS develops infections, even from unusual organisms (opportunistic infections) and various malignancies. HIV virus also can affect the brain and nerves. There are medications to control the infections and malignancies. There are also medications to slow the growth of HIV. However, right now there is no cure and no vaccination to prevent infection. The disease is fatal. However, many new treatments are being developed and there is hope that medical research will rapidly find better forms of treatment and prevention. HIV is spread through the transmission of contaminated body fluids such as semen, vaginal secretions and blood into the body of another person. The entry occurs through broken skin and mucous membranes (tissues that line the mouth, vagina, rectum, and urethra). Any activity where one partner either heterosexual or homosexual penetrates another sexually can spread the illness. Any cutting into the body with contaminated instruments can cause infection; this includes needles used by IV drug abusers, unsterilized medical and dental equipment, as well as ear piercing, tattooing, and manicure equipment. Take precautions. Always ask if equipment used in medical, dental or cosmetic procedures is sterilized, new, or disposable. Always practice safe sex. Mothers infected with HIV should also know that they can pass the infection to their children during pregnancy and breast feeding. However, the virus is not spread by casual contact, such as hugging, holding hands, close conversation, sharing a meal, etc. Don't assume AIDS can't happen to you or your loved ones. It can. The only absolute treatment is prevention. We must try hard not to stigmatize and isolate those who are infected with HIV or have developed AIDS. If you have questions about what is safe, consult your physician.


 

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Should I be tested for HIV antibodies?

It is important that you know your HIV antibody status. There are many places where you can take a test anonymously and where no record is kept of your results. Taking the test is also important because early diagnosis and treatment of HIV disease may prolong life and reduce disability. Those who engage in high-risk behavior, i.e., those who may become infected or infect others through IV drug use or unprotected (without a condom) hetero or homosexual intercourse should consider taking the test immediately. In addition, anyone who received blood or blood products prior to screening of the blood supply in 1985 may have been exposed to the HIV virus. You should never take the test without careful preparation and counseling, however. You should consider the emotional, social, legal, financial, and insurance consequences. It often helps to bring along a knowledgeable person whom you trust to help you ask questions that will get you the information you need to make an informed decision in the event you test positive. It is a good idea as well to have an expert with whom you can discuss your results.

What should I do with my test results?

If you are HIV positive, find a physician who knows about HIV disease and with whom you feel comfortable. You will need to work together very closely and will want someone who cares what happens to you. If you are HIV negative, consult your physician about the need for future testing and about lifestyle changes you may need to make in order to stay HIV negative.

If I'm HIV positive, should I tell other people?

It is important to tell those whom you may have exposed through sexual contact, needle sharing or other risky behavior. They need to be tested and have the knowledge that allows them to seek medical care. This can be very difficult to do and counseling can help. You will profit from a network of helpful and supportive people. However, you do need to be careful about whom you tell. Some people have very strong reactions. Telling your boss and coworkers can have financial and legal ramifications. It is best to start with a few friends or family with whom you feel close and whom you can trust not to tell others. Developing a community of support is a process and takes time. There may be HIV-positive support groups in your area or HIV hotlines that provide education and helpful support.

How does it feel to be HIV positive?

It is normal to have strong reactions such as fear, anger, and a sense of being overwhelmed. Some people even have suicidal thoughts. It is understandable that you might feel helpless and fear illness, disability and death. Other reactions might include:

Denial: Often, people who find out they are HIV positive will handle the news by denying that it is true. This denial may come up soon after the diagnosis is made. Denial can be helpful: it can give you time to get used to the idea of infection. It can, however, cause problems for oneself and others if one engages in risky behavior. And if it goes on too long it can get in the way of your getting the assistance and medical attention you need.

Guilt: It is not unusual for people to blame themselves for illness and to feel it is punishment. This guilt can be worsened by society's prejudice and ignorance about HIV and AIDS. It is important, if you are HIV positive, to seek out those who are accepting and supportive.

Sadness: HIV disease means life changes and losses of one kind or another. Sadness is an understandable reaction. Sadness lifts for most people as they adjust. On the other hand, it can turn sometimes slowly and subtly, sometimes quickly into a more serious problem, called Depression. If you are feeling depressed, it is important that you talk your feelings out. Your physician as well as knowledgeable and supportive friends and loved ones can help. Remember that there is always help through counseling, and any strong and lasting reaction calls for some kind of assistance.

continue: Other Psychological Reactions to HIV

Last Updated: 29 March 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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