What do you think when you hear the word “HIV”? Maybe these three letters only bring back distant memories of middle-school Sex Ed class. Or, you might have heard about free local HIV testing, and aren’t sure if it’s really for you. Maybe you received a life-changing diagnosis, and you wonder what to do next.
For whatever reason, if you’re looking for HIV/AIDS 101, you’ve come to the right place!
Metro Inclusive Health, a Tampa Bay non-profit organization, began as an early responder to the HIV epidemic in our region. Today, we provide over 100 health and wellness services – but HIV services like testing, treatment, and prevention are still a major part of what we do.
With that in mind, we’re always ready to answer your FAQs about HIV.
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Only humans can contract it, and it attacks the immune system. While one’s immune system usually fights off infection, HIV causes the immune system to not work the way it should. There are three stages of HIV: acute, chronic, then AIDS.
AIDS is the third and final stage of HIV, and it stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. At this stage, the virus can do major damage to your immune system. If not medicated, and without a proactive lifestyle change in a previous stage, can include: swollen lymph nodes, a fever that lasts more than ten days, purple spots that don’t go away, and unexplained weight loss.
This is one of the common FAQs about HIV. In short, HIV can be found in bodily fluids, such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. This means it can be transmitted through penetrative (anal or vaginal) sex, blood transfusion or organ donation (extremely rare due to rigorous screening processes). Additionally, HIV can be transmitted via sharing contaminated needles, and between mother and infant during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.
However, you cannot transmit or contract HIV through casual contact, like hugging, touching the same surfaces, or contact sports. Stigma around HIV/AIDS often comes from misinformation or misunderstanding.
Symptoms may vary depending on the individual, their CD4 (or “t-cell”) count, and the stage of HIV progression. To begin with, acute HIV may share symptoms with a lot of common ailments:
Chronic HIV is a bit different. At this point, the almost flu-like symptoms of the acute stage leave, and an asymptomatic stage begins. This stage can last up to ten years, during which HIV can still be transmitted.
Lastly, if HIV progresses to AIDS, the immune system is severely depleted. This increases the risk of developing illnesses and infections that the body would normally suppress. Symptoms of AIDs can include swollen lymph nodes, a fever that lasts more than ten days, discoloration, and unexplained weight loss.
Fortunately, HIV-related mortality is on the decline and medical treatment of HIV has come a long way. Still, it’s important to get tested quickly if you may have been exposed and/or experience related symptoms.
This depends on a lot of factors. The length of time can vary widely between different people living with HIV. It can be 10–15 years, sometimes longer or sometimes shorter.
Today, Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) can prevent progression to AIDS by decreasing viral load in an infected body, to the point of undetectable status.
“Undetectable” in this context means that there are so few “copies” of HIV in your body, that the virus can’t be detected by a test. Additionally, it means you can stay healthy, and the likelihood of spreading the virus to partners decreases. Thus, the phrase “Undetectable = Untransmittable” was popularized, and shortened to “U=U.” Lowering the presence of HIV in the blood may be achieved through specialized medical care including antiretroviral therapy (ART).
Fortunately, there are several ways to help prevent the spread of HIV. When it comes to sexual health, prevention often starts with knowing your HIV status and having open conversations with sexual partners. These conversations are unique and personal, but you’re not alone — METRO’s Prevention & Sexual Health specialists can answer your questions, provide free HIV testing, and help you navigate difficult conversations. Additionally, we provide support groups for people living with HIV in Tampa Bay and beyond, including specialized programs for those in magnetic (+/-) relationships.
Once you know your status and risk factors, behavioral changes can have a big impact on your risk of HIV transmission. For example, consistent and correct use of external (“male”) or internal (“female”) condoms, choosing non-penetrative sexual activities, and — if you’re an injecting drug user — always using new or medically sterilized disposable needles and syringes.
Today, there are medical treatments to prevent HIV. Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is a once-a-day preventative medicine that helps protect from HIV. Read our PrEP FAQs here! If you have a close call or think you may be at risk for HIV, you can also take nPEP. If taken within 72 hours of a high-risk experience, nPEP can significantly reduce your chances of contracting HIV.
HIV cannot be cured, but it can be treated and it is absolutely possible to live a long, healthy life with this diagnosis. Medical treatment for HIV is called antiretroviral therapy (ART), and it works to reduce your viral load, or the amount of HIV present in the body. It’s important to start treatment as soon as possible if you test positive for HIV.
METRO remains the only Tampa Bay organization offering primary care alongside HIV care, treatment, and case management. Medical Case Management includes linkage to necessary services and an emphasis on medical disease management and treatment adherence. The goal is to assist clients in becoming increasingly self-sufficient with an improvement in overall wellbeing.
You can get tested for HIV at community health centers, lab tests, mobile health units and more. Metro Inclusive Health provides 3 types of HIV tests: INSTI, blood-based, and Orasure.
The INSTI test is commonly known as the “1 minute HIV test”, and can very accurately identify a patient as HIV positive 21-22 days post-exposure.
The blood-based test is completed by drawing a blood sample for the lab. This test is considered the best available and can detect the virus in as little as 10-14 days after exposure. Results provided within 3 days.
The OraQuick test is an oral swab test.
First and foremost, it’s important to know that, with treatment, you can live a long and healthy life while living with HIV. For that reason, it’s vital to choose a doctor who is familiar with – or specializes in – HIV, and can build the right treatment plan for you.