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Learn About HIV

What Is HIV?
HIV is a virus that lives in human blood, sexual fluids, and breastmilk. It weakens your immune system, so your body has a hard time fighting off common germs, viruses, fungi, and other invaders. It spreads mainly through unprotected sexual contact and sharing needles.
AIDS -- acquired immune deficiency syndrome -- is the condition that comes when your immune system stops working and you get sick because of HIV.

Who Gets It?
The infection spreads from person to person when certain body fluids are shared, usually during vaginal or anal sex, or when sharing drugsyou inject. It can also be passed from dirty needles from tattoos and body piercing. It can be spread through oral sex, too, although the chance is small.
A mother can pass HIV to her child during birth, when the baby is exposed to her infected blood, or in her breast milk. But in some areas of the developing world, it's safer for a mom with HIV to breastfeed for a few months rather than to give a newborn formula with potentially contaminated water, especially if she is receiving treatment for HIV.
HIV doesn't live in saliva, tears, pee, or sweat -- so it can't be spread by casual contact with these body fluids.
HIV is not as easy to get as other infectious diseases. The virus can't survive for long outside the human body; it dies quickly when the body fluid dries up. It's not spread by animals or insects. You won't find it on public surfaces like door handles or toilet seats.
All blood products used in the United States and Western Europe today are tested for HIV. Blood banks get rid of any donated blood that tests positive, so it never gets into the public supply. Someone who donates HIV-positive blood will be contacted so they can be tested by their doctor, and they won't be able to give blood again.

Where Is It Widespread?
Sub-Saharan Africa (the southern part) has the greatest number of people who are infected. The World Health Organization and the United Nations' UNAIDS office estimate that more than a third of adults are infected with HIV in some areas of Africa. The numbers of people who have HIV in Eastern Europe and in some parts of Asia are growing because of injection drug use.
There are two main types of the virus: HIV-1 and HIV-2. HIV-2 is most commonly found in West Africa, although places in other parts the world are seeing it, too. HIV tests usually look for both kinds.

Living With HIV and AIDS
The first documented AIDS case was in 1981. Since then, about 35 million people have died from illnesses related to the disease. Millions of children have been orphaned because of it.
Now, combination drug treatments have turned AIDS into a long-term disease that you can manage. At the end of 2015, about 37 million people were living with HIV, including almost 2 million kids. About 17 million of these persons were receiving these life-saving treatments. When you work closely with your doctors and stick to your treatment plan, you can live a long time and expect a near normal life expectancy.
It can take HIV many years to damage your immune system enough to make you vulnerable to certain diseases, such as a form of skin cancer called Kaposi's sarcoma. These other "opportunistic infections" are signs that you have AIDS, since people with healthy immune systems rarely get them. The HIV treatments, if taken early, can prevent progression to AIDS.
Because there are drugs you can take for it, some groups of people believe they don't have to be worried about HIV anymore, even though they're more likely to get the virus. But treatments don't change the fact that HIV is a life-threatening illness.
HIV and AIDS medications can be expensive. Despite successful programs to treat people with HIV in resource-limited countries, many people in the world living with the virus and its complications still have a hard time getting the medicine they need.

What Puts You at Risk for HIV?
HIV gets passed from person to person in blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum), fluids from the vagina and rectum, and breastmilk. So you're at risk when body fluids from someone who's infected could get into and mix with yours.
Some things you do now can raise your chances of getting HIV, but you can't change things you were born with or happened in the past.

Unsafe Sex
One of the most common ways you can get HIV is by having vaginal or anal sex with someone who has HIV. You could pass HIV during oral sex, too, but that's less common. It's also risky when you don't know whether or not your partner is HIV-positive, because they could be. The more sexual partners you have, the more your odds of catching HIV go up.
Using condoms, barriers, and dental dams will help a lot to keep you safe, but they're not perfect.
Your choice of partner also matters. Having sex with someone who has a higher chance of getting (and therefore having) HIV -- a sex worker or an IV drug user, for example -- raises your chances as well.

Shared Needles
The other big risk is reusing needles, syringes, or other equipment an HIV-positive person used to inject drugs, whether they were prescribed by a doctor or illegal. You shouldn't even reuse your own.
You could also get HIV from a needle used for piercing or tattooing if it wasn't sterilized after piercing or tattooing someone with HIV.
An accidental stick from a contaminated needle or medical device could cause HIV, but that's very rare.

Alcohol and Recreational Drugs
Because these can weaken your judgment, you may be more likely to do other risky things, such as having unprotected sex.
A Sexually Transmitted Disease
An STD such as herpes, chlamydia, syphilis, or gonorrhea may cause changes in the tissue of the vagina or penis that make it easier for HIV to pass to you while you're having sex.

From Mother to Child
A mother infected with HIV can give her baby the virus before or during birth, or by breastfeeding. This is one reason why pregnant women should get tested for HIV.

Donated Blood
It's possible if you had a blood transfusion or were given blood products before 1985. Since then, all blood in the United States and Western Europe gets tested for HIV.

Your Genes
Some people have fewer copies of a gene that helps to fight HIV. We might someday have a test that can tell you if you're more likely to get HIV and develop AIDS, but there isn't one yet.

Symptoms and Stages of HIV
HIV infection happens in three stages. Without treatment, it will get worse over time and eventually overwhelm your immune system.

First Stage: Acute HIV Infection
Most people don't know right away when they've been infected with HIV, but a short time later, they may have symptoms. This is when your body's immune system puts up a fight, typically within 2 to 6 weeks after you've gotten the virus. It's called acute retroviral syndrome or primary HIV infection.
The symptoms are similar to those of other viral illnesses, and they're often compared to the flu. They typically last a week or two and then completely go away. They include:
Nausea and vomiting
Aching muscles
Sore throat
Swollen lymph nodes
A red rash that doesn't itch, usually on your torso
Doctors can now prevent HIV from taking hold in your body if they act quickly. People who may have been infected -- for example, had unprotected sex with someone who is HIV-positive -- can take anti-HIV drugsto protect themselves. This is called PEP. But you must start the process within 72 hours of when you were exposed, and the medicines can have unpleasant side effects.

Second Stage: Chronic HIV Infection
After your immune system loses the battle with HIV, the flu-like symptoms will go away. Doctors may call this the asymptomatic or clinical latent period. Most people don't have symptoms you can see or feel. You may not realize you're infected and can pass HIV on to others. This stage can last 10 years or more.During this time, untreated HIV will be pressing CD4 T-cells and destroying your immune system.  As the number drops, you become vulnerable to other infections.Fortunately, a combination, or "cocktail," of medications can help fight HIV, rebuild your immune system, and prevent spreading the virus. if you're taking medications and have healthy habits, your HIV infection may not progress further.

Third Stage: AIDS
AIDS is the advanced stage of HIV infection. This is usually when your CD4 T-cell number drops below 200. You can also be diagnosed with AIDS if you have an "AIDS defining illness" such as Kaposi's sarcoma (a form of skin cancer) or pneumocystis pneumonia (a lung disease).
If you didn't know you were infected with HIV earlier, you may realize it after you have some of these symptoms:
Being tired all of the time
Swollen lymph nodes in your neck or groin
Fever that lasts for more than 10 days
Night sweats
Unexplained weight loss
Purplish spots on your skin that don't go away
Shortness of breath
Severe, long-lasting diarrhea
Yeast infections in your mouth, throat, or vagina
Bruises or bleeding you can't explain
People with AIDS who don't take medication only survive about 3 years, even less if they get a dangerous infection. But with the right treatment and a healthy lifestyle, you can live a long time.

How Do You Treat HIV?
There's no cure for HIV, but treatment options are much better than they were a few decades ago. Because of medical advancements, many people now live long, active lives with HIV.
Before you start treatment, tell your doctor about all of your past health issues and illnesses. Let them know about any alternative or complementary therapies you're using, as well as any supplementsor drugs you're taking now: prescription, over-the-counter, and recreational.
Daily medication and regular testing can help keep the virus under control and slow the effects on your body for many years.

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