Peer Health

HIV and AIDS

The human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) causes a breakdown in the body’s immune system which leaves a person incapable of fighting infection and disease. AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, is the final stage of a progressive illness caused by HIV. Having HIV does not necessarily mean one has AIDS; a person can be a carrier of the virus and not manifest AIDS symptoms. HIV-infected people can develop AIDS. It may take many months or years for a person to develop AIDS after becoming infected with the virus.

Transmission of HIV

Anyone, any age, male or female, who engages in unsafe sex, shares needles or receives blood from someone infected with HIV is at risk. The virus which causes AIDS is transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids, especially blood, semen and vaginal secretions. The virus enters the body through mucous membranes or an open cut or sore or can be injected directly into the bloodstream. HIV can be transmitted between sexual partners during anal, oral or vaginal sex; through the sharing of contaminated needles; and from mother to child during pregnancy, birth or breast feeding.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Most people infected with HIV show no symptoms for months or years after becoming infected, and many of the signs and symptoms associated with HIV infection and AIDS are not unusual among HIV-negative college students. A person infected with the HIV may have no symptoms or a combination of symptoms including nausea; diarrhea; unexplained weight loss or fatigue; swollen glands; fever, shaking, or chills lasting more than several weeks; blurred vision; severe headaches; easy bruising; and pink to purple blotches, flat or raised, usually painless, found beneath the skin or mucous membranes such as the nose, mouth, eyes, or rectum. Symptoms of an opportunistic infection (the most common of which is Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia–a lung infection) may also signal a poorly functioning immune system. Once these symptoms appear, AIDS may be diagnosable by a health care professional.

At the present time, the best way to determine if you have been exposed to the HIV is to have an HIV antibody test. This is NOT a test for AIDS, however. It simply tests for the presence of antibodies (substances produced in the blood to fight invading organisms) to HIV. A substantiated positive test indicates that a person has been exposed to the HIV virus. It does not indicate whether or not that person will develop AIDS.

For a conclusive result to be obtained, testing for HIV must take place six months after a possible exposure. Individual circumstances sometimes dictate that a test be done as early as three months after a possible exposure. In the case of a negative result at three months, retesting will be necessary. If you think you may have been exposed to the virus, you should abstain from any activities in which you could expose someone else. It is especially important to avoid donating blood during this time. Although there is now a screening method which is used to test all donated blood, there is still a small chance of a donor infecting the blood supply during this “untestable” window. Further, donating blood is not the way to find out if you are infected with HIV. Other means of testing are available and should be used.

Places to Get an HIV Test

Williams College Health Center
105 The Knolls, Williamstown,
(413) 597-2206 Monday-Friday. No appointment necessary.
Confidential: results of test will be recorded in your file only if you so choose
Cost: free, donations accepted

Family Planning Council of Western MA
95 Main Street, North Adams, 663-8846
Wednesday, 12:30-3:15 by appointment.
Anonymous
Cost: free, donation requested & encouraged

North Adams Regional Hospital, Employee Health Center
1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month at 12:30pm. No appointment necessary.
Anonymous
Cost: free, donation requested & encouraged

STD Clinic
39 Waconah Street, Pittsfield, 447-2654
Monday-Friday by appointment.
Confidential
Cost: free, donation requested & encouraged

Prevention of HIV

As HIV is spreading at an extremely alarming rate, and no cure has been found, prevention is crucial. If you do not have anal, oral, or vaginal intercourse, and if you never share needles, you have almost no risk of becoming infected with HIV. Clearly, total abstinence is the safest way to avoid sexual exposure to HIV, but it is possible to be sexually active and remain healthy. If you do choose to engage in sexual activity, safer sex practices can reduce your risk for HIV infection.

  1. REDUCE your number of sexual partners. Remember that, in terms of your risk for contracting HIV, when you have sexual intercourse with someone you are also having intercourse with every person he or she has ever had sex with.
  2. AVOID the exchange of bodily fluids. Use latex condoms and dental dams correctly during all types of intercourse (for more information on contraception, click here).
  3. ASK about the health status of your partners. It is possible to overcome shyness; it is not possible to overcome AIDS.
  4. AVOID sexually contact while under the influence of any mind-altering substance.
  5. Maintain a healthy lifestyle.