Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is a chronic health condition caused by a virus that can be spread during sexual activity. Currently, about 1.1 million Americans are living with it.2 In 2017 alone, nearly 39,000 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in the U.S.; 52 percent of these diagnoses occurred in the South.2

In addition to sexual activity, HIV can also be spread by using or coming in contact with needles contaminated by HIV-infected blood, or via mother-to-infant transmission (both during pregnancy or while breastfeeding).

It's been estimated that 1 out of 7 people with HIV don't realize they have it.1 But being unaware of one's status doesn't prevent one from being able to transmit the disease to others. In fact, if a person doesn't know their status, they may actually be more likely to transmit HIV to their sexual partner(s) because they may not think to take the necessary steps to protect themselves and others.

Both diagnosis and treatment of HIV have made tremendous strides in the past few decades, and living with HIV is no longer the so-called "death sentence" it once was.3 However, there are still many potential health consequences associated with being HIV positive, primarily because of the way the virus attacks a person's immune system.4 Being aware of these consequences and complications, as well as understanding your risk, can help you and your partner(s) stay healthy and avoid this STD.

Risk Factors for HIV

Anyone who is sexually active has at least some increased risk for contracting HIV from a sexual partner. However, some people appear to have a greater risk than others.1,2,4 This includes:

  • Men who have sex with other men
  • People who have unprotected sex, especially anal
  • People who have multiple sexual partners
  • People who have sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which may increase risky sexual behaviors

Compared to other racial and ethnic groups, Black, Hispanic, and Latino Americans have a disproportionately higher risk for acquiring HIV.1 Likewise, people with a lower socioeconomic status are also disproportionately affected and also tend to have a harder time accessing treatment.5 As mentioned, sharing needles is another way by which HIV can spread. For this reason, IV drug use is considered another major risk factor.1

Potential Complications and Consequences of HIV

When taken properly, HIV medications can drastically reduce the likelihood that a person will spread the virus to others. In fact, when treatment suppresses a person's viral load to undetectable levels, the person virtually cannot transmit HIV to their partner(s), in an exciting treatment breakthrough known as Treatment as Prevention.6 Awareness for this breakthrough has increased thanks to a slogan called U = U (undetectable = untransmittable) .6

However, in order to be "untransmittable," a person with HIV must take their medication exactly as prescribed every day.7 And even though treatment make the virus undetectable in the blood, it doesn't mean the person is cured of their HIV—they'll still have the virus for life. So, if a person is unable or unwilling to take the appropriate medication, then they remain at risk for transmitting it to other people.

People with HIV are at a greater risk for transmitting the virus to their sexual partners within 2 to 4 weeks after first becoming infected themselves. Research further suggests that a person who has an STD in addition to HIV may be more likely to transmit HIV to their partner(s).4 This is why anyone with HIV should be tested regularly for STDs and treated for any sexually transmitted diseases they may have.

Additional complications and consequences of being HIV positive, which depend on individual factors including lifestyle, genetics, and disease stage, include:

  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). When HIV is untreated or improperly managed, it can lead to AIDS, a life-threatening and sometimes fatal illness. It's often considered the final or most advanced stage of HIV.8 At this stage, a person's immune system has become so overwhelmed and damaged by the virus that it can no longer work properly. This can make the person more likely to fall ill with other conditions (in this case known as "opportunistic infections"), including tuberculosis, pneumonia, and candidiasis (thrush).
  • An increased risk for psychological consequences associated with stigma and chronic illness. Research shows that people who have HIV have a higher risk for mental health disorders. In fact, people who are HIV positive are twice as likely to have depression as people who don't have HIV,9 and it's been estimated that 50% of all people with HIV also have a co-occurring psychological or substance abuse disorder.10 Social stigma and discrimination associated with HIV, as well as stress associated with living with the disease, are often contributing factors to anxiety, depression, and other types of mood dysfunction. Cognitive and mental health disorders can also develop if the virus enters and affects the brain.9
  • Additional chronic health problems. Improved treatment for HIV has reduced the rates of opportunistic infections that occur due to AIDS. However, because HIV affects the entire immune system, the typical person with HIV is still at an increased risk for other health problems even if they don't have AIDS.10 These health problems can include atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, heart attacks, neuropathy, myocarditis, dementia, early-onset Alzheimer's disease, pulmonary hypertension, lung cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, loss of bone mineral density, loss of muscle mass, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Complications for Pregnant Women with HIV and Their Infants and Babies

As mentioned, women who test positive for HIV and who become pregnant may pass the virus onto their babies. It can also be spread to a newborn baby via a mother's breast milk.11

If a baby is born with or acquires HIV at a young age, they likely will not exhibit any symptoms right away, despite the fact that the virus is actively attacking their immune system. Eventually, symptoms can develop as the disease progresses, including persistent skin rashes or infections, weight loss, lack of energy, enlarged lymph nodes, physical and developmental delays, swollen abdomen, intermittent diarrhea, and other complications. Like adults, treatment for infants and children with HIV is possible and can improve their quality of life and help them live longer.

The good news is that because of advances in HIV treatment, the current rate of mother-to-infant transmission in the United States is as low as 1%.11 

Are you sexually active? Getting regularly tested for STDs keeps you up-to-date and in control of your sexual health and can keep you and your partners healthy. If you're due for a private and convenient at-home STD screening, request your personal STD test kit today.

References

  1. (2017, May 15). Who is at Risk For HIV? Retrieved from https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/about-hiv-and-aids/who-is-at-risk-for-hiv
  2. Park, A. (2016, December 1). HIV Used to be a Death Sentence. Here's What's Changed in 35 Years. Retrieved from http://time.com/4585537/world-aids-day-hiv/
  3. HIV/AIDS and Socioeconomic Status. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/hiv-aids
  4. (2014, December 16). STDs and HIV—CDC Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/hiv/stdfact-std-hiv-detailed.htm
  5. (2017, November 1). U = U Taking Off in 2017. Retrieved from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanhiv/article/PIIS2352-3018(17)30183-2/fulltext
  6. (2017, May 15). Taking Your HIV Medication Every Day. Retrieved from https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/staying-in-hiv-care/hiv-treatment/taking-your-hiv-medications-every-day
  7.  (2017, May 15). What are HIV and AIDS? Retrieved from https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/about-hiv-and-aids/what-are-hiv-and-aids
  8. (2016, November). HIV/AIDS and Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/hiv-aids/index.shtml
  9. Chu, C. (2011). Complications of HIV Infection: A Systems-Based Approach. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2011/0215/p395.html
  10. Congenital HIV Symptoms and Causes. Retrieved from http://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions/c/congenital-hiv/symptoms-and-causes