We all know that being HIV positive is no longer a death sentence, if your treatment is well managed. But you may not know that tackling the virus sooner rather than later is often better for your health – and could add years to your life. That means knowing your status is far better than not knowing.
You’ve also probably heard that you can live with HIV for many years before exhibiting any serious symptoms. That's true, but the virus could still be causing damage without you even knowing it. That’s why getting tested is important.
However, if you haven’t been screened for HIV recently, are there any symptoms of being infected with HIV that you should be looking out for?
According to Gerard Damstra, the nurse at OUT LGBT Well-being in Pretoria, the answer is yes, but these symptoms may be difficult to link directly to HIV as they can often seem similar to symptoms of other conditions or diseases.
Bearing this in mind, here's his list of possible signs and symptoms that could indicate that you are HIV positive, especially when you experience more than one of them.
• Feeling hot and sweaty? A fever for a month or longer is worrisome.
• Losing weight? A loss of more than 10% of your body weight within a period of a month could be serious.
• Exhausted all the time? Constant tiredness and fatigue may be an HIV symptom.
• Is your stomach not well? Look out for nausea and vomiting for two weeks or longer.
• Does your head hurt? Persistent headaches could be a sign.
• Swelling on parts of your body? Prolonged swelling of the lymph nodes should be noted.
• Does it hurt to move? Chronic muscle and joint pain could also be another symptom.
• Running to the loo all the time? Diarrhoea for a month or longer is not ideal.
Remember that a combination of these symptoms could indicate HIV infection, but could also be a sign of other health related issues.
Of course, there’s only one way to know for sure. If you exhibit any of these symptoms and are worried you might have been infected, act quickly, rather than worrying all the time. Get hold of your doctor, local clinic or OUT in Pretoria and get tested. It's easy (and free at OUT) and it will give you some peace of mind.
Or, you could simply save yourself all the stress and get tested regularly. How often should you get tested, you might ask? Well, that depends on your sexual activity (your health worker or doctor can make recommendations based on this) but at the very minimum you should have at least two tests a year.
The most important thing to remember is that not knowing and delaying treatment could be bad for your health. Studies have shown that patients who start treatment with lower CD4 counts (the number of infection fighting cells in your blood) have a higher rate of death than those who start treatment at the recommended CD4 level.
"If the levels are very low the body deteriorates and it becomes harder to bring up the CD4 count to the desirable healthy level. And people can deteriorate so quickly that they could die without treatment. Early diagnosis and treatment saves lives!" explains Damstra.
He adds that "Delayed treatment can also have long-term effects on people’s immune systems and can make them prone to secondary infections, like pneumonia, so much quicker".
Remember that if you are infected with HIV, it’s not only your own health that benefits from early testing and treatment, but also that of your partners. After all, when your own health and wellbeing is important to you, your partners' health and wellbeing should be important to you too.
Here’s the thing: If you are on effective ARV treatment (and sticking to it as your doctor’s prescribed) you begin to reduce the chances that you will pass it on to someone else. That’s because if the treatment is being effective it will reduce the amount of HIV in your body, making it more difficult to transmit to others.
It all starts with HIV screening and being aware of your health. Get tested, start treatment if you need to and take charge of your life and health. Being empowered and in control is so much better than living fearfully in the dark.
For testing, advice, counselling and information on HIV treatment, or any other sexual health services for men who have sex with men, contact OUT in Pretoria on 012 430 3272 or ask Dr Dick here.