HIV and AIDS Basics: Symptoms, Causes, and Prevention

Steven Mott by Steven Mott | Licensed since 2012
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This article was updated on: 09/15/2018

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According to a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 1.2 million adults in America live with HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus; roughly one in eight don’t know they are infected. In some cases, HIV progresses into full-blown AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), which accounts for nearly 13,000 deaths per year.

What is HIV/AIDS?

The HIV virus attacks the body’s immune system, specifically T cells (also called CD4 cells), which help the body fight off infections, according to the CDC. If HIV is untreated, the body can no longer defend itself against common diseases and infections, and ultimately, health conditions such as cancer may set in, sometimes indicating the person has developed AIDS.

You can only get HIV and AIDS through specific activities, most commonly sexual contact or using contaminated needles and syringes. HIV is most common in men who have sex with men, and black men who have sex with men have the highest infection rate of all populations, according to the CDC. In some less common cases, HIV may be spread from mother to child during childbirth, or through a needle-stick injury in a health-care setting.

According to the government website aids.gov, HIV cannot survive for long outside the human body and needs a human host to spread the disease; you cannot get it from touching something used by a person with HIV and AIDS. HIV/AIDS is not spread by insects, saliva, hugs, handshakes, or closed mouth kissing, according to the CDC.

The CDC says you can prevent HIV/AIDS by doing things such as abstinence (not having sex), limiting your sexual partners, and using condoms correctly every time you have sexual contact. If you are an IV (intravenous) drug user, never share needles. There are also prescription drugs called pre-exposure prophylaxis available for people at very high risk of HIV that can lower their chances of getting infected.

What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?

The CDC warns that you should not rely on HIV/AIDS symptoms to know if you have the disease; the only way to know for sure is to get a blood test. Depending on the stage of the disease, symptoms of HIV/AIDS may include:

  • Fever, chills, night sweats
  • Sore throat, mouth ulcers
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Muscle aches, fatigue
  • Rash

Symptoms may last for a few days or several weeks, and even if HIV/AIDS doesn’t show up on a blood test during this time, you are extremely infectious and can transmit the virus to others. If you have HIV and do not get treatment, you may develop AIDS, which may appear with the following symptoms (according to aids.gov):

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Diarrhea lasting more than a week
  • Sores on the mouth, genitals, or anus
  • Pneumonia
  • Swollen lymph glands in the groin, neck, and armpits
  • Red or purplish blotches or sores on the skin of the mouth, nose, and eyelids
  • Memory loss, neurological disorders

Does Medicare cover treatment of HIV/AIDS?

There is no known cure for HIV, states the CDC website, but in many cases it can be managed with aggressive antiretroviral therapy (ART). If you have a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan, your plan generally must include antiretroviral drugs in its formulary, or list of covered medications.

Medicare also typically covers eligible medically necessary treatments associated with HIV/AIDS and its complications, although you may have to pay Part A and Part B deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance.

Part B also covers HIV screening tests once every 12 months (or up to three times during a pregnancy) if you meet certain eligibility requirements. You may receive this test at no cost to you if your provider accepts Medicare assignment. You might have to pay a coinsurance amount for your doctor visit, and the Part B deductible may apply.

If you would like more information about Medicare coverage of HIV/AIDS screening and complications, I’m happy to help you. You can also request information via email, or schedule a telephone call, by clicking one of the links below. To view a list of plans in your area you may qualify for, click the “Compare Plans” button on this page.

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