Well, let’s first look at HIV. HIV is a virus that attacks our immune system. If we expand this out, its name Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
This implies that it does something to our immune system somehow. (We’ll actually explore on this later on below.) Most importantly, if we don’t treat HIV, it’ll eventually cause AIDS in the infected person. Which is also known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
Now you already get the idea how destructively HIV attacks your immune system. It is so destructive that you end up acquiring an immune deficiency system. Thus putting you into a state of immune-system failure which you will eventually not being able to fight off even the most basic infections. And this immune-less state, is what we call AIDS.
Now that you know… Let’s explore this a little bit further now.
An important thing to note is the CD4 T-lymphocyte count. T-lymphocytes are a really important type of immune system cell. CD4 refers to a type of protein that’s stuck through their cell membranes, that’s kind of how we like to identify them, by this protein on their membranes. The reason they get a special mention here is because they’re super important in the progression from HIV infection to AIDS. As it turns out that HIV preferentially loves to infect these CD4 cells of our immune system.
Well, these CD4 cells, also called helper T cells, play a huge role in signaling your other immune cells to come and destroy every given infectious particle that our body discovers, for example strep throat bacteria, or flu viruses, or even HIV viruses, for that matter. So, these CD4 cells are kind of central. They’re almost like little amplifiers of our immune system. Since HIV loves to infect and kill these cells. It completely disrupts how our immune systems function, and renders it essentially useless.
Let’s say you acquire HIV in your body, either in your bloodstream or your tissues, maybe through unprotected sex with an infected partner which is the most common method of becoming infected with HIV, in adults at least. What happens? Your white blood cells/ T-helper cells, the CD4 cells we’ve talked about as well as some other white blood cells, like your macrophages and so on will infected with its virus. Additionally, it starts from inside a white blood cell and the virus can do two things.
It can sort of hijack your cell’s machinery allowing it to insert its genetic material into your own cell’s DNA. From there, it starts to make lots and lots and lots of copies of itself, lots of new HIV particles. At this point, there is a viral load which refers to the large amount of HIV in your bloodstream caused by its multiplication.
After the primary infection, the viral load starts to increase. It hijacks our T-helper cells causing new HIV particles to be churned out. Hence, our viral load is majorly on the upswing. After around the two to three-weeks, the viral load is starting to rise and it won’t be long til the HIV virus production start spawning rapidly within our bodies. The major concern is that there is more HIV in your bloodstream. Hence, the more CD4 cells get infected, get hijacked.
But the biggest problem here is the part two of the process. The part two is that HIV infection of your CD4 cells, triggers a self-destruct sequence within these cells. This causes you to end up losing these CD4 cells.
What makes this even worse, is the self-destruct sequence. It doesn’t just destroy the infected cells, it even destroys nearby immune cells that maybe have come into the area to try to help out. At the end, you do end up losing lots more immune cells than just the infected ones. When this happens, you’ll see a massive steep drop-off around the two to three week mark of our CD4 T-cell numbers. As our HIV viral load is going up it will cause more and more infection of our cells.
Eventually, it will lead to a massive rise in viral load and a massive drop in CD4 levels. This huge viral load means that this time period early on in an infection. This is when someone with HIV has the highest risk of transmitting it to someone else.
One good thing here is that eventually within a month or so, your immune system gets somewhat of a handle on the virus. It will then start to make anti-HIV antibodies.
Those antibodies produced from your body are solely against HIV. So, they start to fight off the virus to some extent. And this is called seroconversion, when you make antibodies to something. Once the antibodies get to work on helping to destroy the viral particles, there will be a decrease in viral load in the bloodstream by the twelfth week. As our immune system starts to control the viral levels to some degree, it will give our CD4 cells a chance to recover. But it will only to an extent, because there’s less virus around to infect them.
You might be wondering, how you’re going to feel during all of this, with this massive battle going on inside your body?
Well, you’re going to feel sick, you’re probably going to feel like you’re having the worst flu you’ve ever had. So about a month or so, at seroconversion, you’ll start to fight the infection. It will result to getting some serious flu-like symptoms which is quite common. Symptoms and Signs you may experience are headache, and fever, and sore throat, muscle pains, joint pains. Some people get swollen glands, just sort of fatigue and feeling unwell. Some people do get a rash, while others get some open sores in their mouth. These are some of the more common symptoms of an acute infection with HIV.
This flu-like illness that people experience is referred to as Acute HIV Syndrome. The reason for a lot of these symptoms is because when immune system cells get really active, or when they die off, both of which are occurring constantly in your body, they tend to release these little chemical signals that causes inflammation.
The immune system can’t completely kill off the HIV, even though we have antibodies now.
The reasoning is firstly, the rate of immune system killing rate and the rate of new viral particles being produced is almost the same. Additionally, also because the virus has sort of taken up residence in some really hard-to-reach reservoirs in our body, such as within the brain and within our bone marrow, and within our genital tract. Due to these two reasons, these curves tend to sort of stabilize at some point, they reach a set point, where again, our immune system is killing off HIV at a pretty similar rate to which HIV is replicating. And this period of time will last roughly about 1 year, as it start preparing itself for the second phase of HIV infection.
Phase 2 is the latency period, or Chronic HIV. In this latency period, there isn’t much any clinical signs of HIV illness and the person is often asymptomatic. They’re still infectious, but there are few or no symptoms during this phase. Without treatment, this phase will last on average about 10 years. Although the rate of T cells decreasing and viral load is getting stabilized, it turns out that HIV’s actually replicating, killing our immune cells just a little bit more than our CD4s are recovering.
Over this long period of time, phase two, eventually, again, without treatment, HIV will start to overwhelm our immune system, and we’ll start to see symptoms again. So, things like fever or muscle pains or swollen glands, really similar to the acute infection, and will start appearing again. This time much for the same reasons as before.
Many people at this stage of the illness will start to experience significant weight loss. As HIV causes you to use more energy than usual, and also prevents you from absorbing nutrients from your food as well as you normally would. So, we often see some significant weight loss for these and a few other reasons as well.
Eventually, if our CD4 cells get to a critically-low number, it will result in us having no functional immune system and it will then become AIDS.
Essentially a state of being where we have no immune system. At this stage, when certain bugs, bacteria and viruses, that would never stand a chance against even a minimally-effective immune system,they will start to infect the person. These specific infections are refer as AIDS-defining illnesses.
This is a huge indicator that they are suffering from AIDS because if somebody has one of these illnesses meat that they do not have a functioning immune system. So, it highly likely that this person having AIDS and not just an HIV infection anymore if they have any of these AIDS-defining illnesses.
Two examples of AIDS-defining illnesses are two fungal pneumonia, one is called Pneumocystis pneumonia, and another one is called Cryptococcal pneumonia. These are two common AIDS-defining illnesses. And again, these aren’t the types of infections that you get when your immune system works even a little bit.
HIV infection will cause an eventual incredibly high number of viral particles, and low amount of CD4 cells in the bloodstream. This will start to development of a completely non-functional immune system in AIDS very quickly, leading to an overwhelming infection. That is done by essentially every infectious pathogen from A to Z. And because of this, death results.
When having sexual intercourse of any kind, as long as it means exposure to bodily fluids (example: blood, vaginal fluid, semen), stay protected at all cost and avoid unprotected contact with it.
Some Preventive Measures you should take:
- ASK your partner if they have HIV/ AIDS
- Check yourself for HIV/ AIDS
- Wear a condom before the start of sexual intercourse
- Don’t use expired Condom
- No Oral sexual intercourse without protection