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What happens after an exposure to the blood or genital secretions of an HIV- infected person?
The risk of HIV transmission occurring after any potential exposure to bodily fluids is poorly defined. The highest risk sexual activity, however, is thought to be anal intercourse without a condom. In this case, the risk of infection may be as high as 3% to 5% for each exposure. The risk is probably less for vaginal intercourse without a condom and even less for oral sex without a latex barrier. Despite the fact that no single sexual exposure carries a high risk of contagion, HIV infection can occur after even one sexual event. Thus, people must always be diligent in protecting themselves from potential infection.
Within 2 to 6 weeks of an exposure, the majority of infected persons will have a positive HIV antibody test, with virtually all being positive by 6 months. The test used most commonly for diagnosing infection with HIV is referred to as an ELISA. If the ELISA finds the HIV antibody, the presence of the antibody is confirmed by a test called a Western blot. During this period of time shortly after infection, more than 50% of those infected will experience a "flu-like" or “infectious mono-like?illness for up to several weeks. This illness is considered the stage of primary HIV infection. The most common symptoms of primary HIV infection are:
- aching muscles and joints
- sore throat, and;
- swollen glands (lymph nodes) in the neck.
It is not known, however, why only some HIV-infected persons develop these symptoms. It also is unknown whether or not having the symptoms is related in any way to the future course of HIV disease. Regardless, infected persons will become symptom-free (asymptomatic) after this phase of primary infection. During the asymptomatic phase, infected individuals will know whether or not they are infected only if a test for HIV is done. Therefore, anyone who might possibly have been exposed to HIV should seek testing even if they are not experiencing symptoms. HIV testing can be performed by a physician or at a testing center.
During the asymptomatic stage of infection, literally billions of HIV particles (copies) are produced every day and circulate in the blood. This production of virus is associated with a decline (at an inconsistent rate) in the number of CD4 cells in the blood over the ensuing years. Although the precise mechanism by which HIV infection results in CD4 cell decline is not known, it probably results from a direct effect of the virus on the cell as well as the body's attempt to clear these infected cells from the system. In addition to virus in the blood, there is also virus throughout the body, especially in the lymph nodes, brain, and genital secretions. The time from HIV infection to the development of AIDS varies. Some people develop symptoms, signaling the complications of HIV that define AIDS, within 1 year of infection. Others, however, remain completely asymptomatic after as many as 20 years. The average time for progression from initial infection to AIDS is 8 to10 years. The reason why different people experience clinical progression of HIV at different rates remains an area of active research.