It may sound strange, but check this out: There’s nothing to fear from HIV.
HIV is an example of a viral infection. You get colds and the flu from other viral infections, and nobody freaks out over them.
Don’t get us wrong: HIV is a dangerous infection if it’s not treated. It’s the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), which is a much more serious progression of the illness.
But today, we have medications to treat and control HIV, just like we do with diabetes and other common diseases. Sure, you probably can’t help being afraid of HIV at first. You may not know much about HIV, and everybody fears the unknown.
But once you know the facts on HIV, your fears start to drain away.
How HIV works
HIV is short for human immunodeficiency virus. It usually gets transmitted by having unprotected sex with someone who is living with the virus or sharing needles from injection drugs.
What’s an HIV infection like? Well, imagine trying to play in the NFL with no helmet or pads. No matter how tough your body may be at the start, you can’t take that much pounding forever. If you don’t actively treat HIV, it’ll gradually grind your immune system down.
See, your immune system has certain cells that work like a fire alarm. When germs get into the bloodstream, these cells sound the alarm — telling disease-fighter cells to suit up and go into battle.
And here’s why HIV is such a badass: it doesn’t attack the fighters — it attacks the alarm. With no alarm cells, disease-fighter cells don’t even know an infection is happening.
Why HIV isn’t a death sentence anymore
HIV invades the fire alarm cells, makes copies of itself and then kills the alarm cells.
But it can’t kill them all — your body has way too many of the fire alarm cells.
Scientists have a name for these fire alarms: CD4 (or t-helper) cells.
Fortunately, it takes years for HIV to kill enough CD4 cells to make the transition into AIDS, which causes severe damage on the immune system.
That delay provides plenty of time for people to start taking an HIV medication called anti-retroviral therapy, or ART.
ART gives CD4 cells a force field that keeps HIV out. If HIV can’t reproduce, it can’t ruin the immune system.
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How ART works
Anti-retroviral therapy typically puts multiple pills to work protecting CD4 cells and fighting off HIV.
ART starts with tests that measure:
- CD4 count: Healthy people have a CD4 count of about 500 to 1,500. Unhealthy people might have a CD4 count below 200. Effective ART keeps the CD4 count in the healthy range.
- Viral load: HIV makes millions of copies of itself before ART gets under way. Once ART meds get into the bloodstream, HIV can’t get inside CD4 cells and reproduce, so the virus starts to die off.
ART aims to push the viral load down into the “undetectable” range to keep people healthy.
ART meds may cause side effects, but they usually go away within a few months. And if they don’t, doctors can usually try prescribing you different meds.
All this works well, with one hitch: HIV always stays in the body, but in extremely tiny quantities.
As soon as people stop taking their meds, HIV comes roaring back.
That’s why it’s crucial for people living with HIV to take their ART meds every day, exactly as they are prescribed.
Why it’s so great to have an undetectable viral load
Life returns to normal when an HIV infection is under control and the viral load is undetectable. People can:
- Have kids.
- Have a normal sex life — without passing on the virus.
- Live to an old age.
- Enjoy a healthy, active life.
How you can help fight HIV
You don’t have to be living with HIV to help control the spread of the disease. All you have to do is:
- Practice safer sex. Use a condom every time and make sure you use it correctly.
- Get tested. If you’re sexually active, you can’t be sure where all your sex partners’ history. Getting tested is the only way to be sure of your HIV status.
- Talk to your doctor about PrEP. PrEP is a daily prescription medication that can seriously reduce your chances of getting HIV. So, it’s worth talking to your doctor to see if it’s a good option for you! If you need help getting on PrEP, call the Circle Health appointment line (216) 707-4010 and ask for a PrEP appointment.
- Go with ART. Anti-retroviral meds can make it almost impossible to transmit HIV to other people. If you’re living with HIV, taking ART will help make sure you can’t spread the disease to any of your partners. If you don’t have HIV, you can still encourage anyone you know who has the disease to stay on their meds — any encouragement helps!
At Circle Health Services, we provide free, confidential HIV testing and plenty of support for people who are living with HIV and everyone in their families and social circles. Why not be the boss of your own body, and stop by for your free HIV test? Results can be available in as little as 20 minutes. And we have plenty of free condoms and other goodies!
You’re the Boss of your body. If you have a question or concern please contact us for information about STI testing and treatment or other health services.
HIV walk-in testing hours:
Mon – Thurs 1 pm – 7 pm
HIV Services (216) 707-3448
STI walk-in medical testing:
Wed 11 am – 3:30 pm
Thurs 9 am – 11:30 am
PrEP or STI medical testing by appointment:
Circle Health Services
12201 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio 44106