Originally published: 25.SEP.2018
Last updated: 15.AUG.2023
Human immunodeficiency virus (also known as HIV) is a virus that attacks the body's immune system. Early HIV symptoms can be very similar to the flu however the only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested.
With proper medical care, HIV can be controlled, that’s why we are sharing the symptoms, signs, and treatment options to help keep you informed. We are also joined by Trinity K Bonet, who tells us her sexual health story to help break down HIV stigmas and misconceptions.
- What is HIV?
- The Symptoms and Signs of HIV
- What to Know About PrEP and Recent Findings
- What is HIV?: An Interview With Trinity K Bonet
- How do I Test for HIV?
What is HIV?
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is a blood-borne virus that is transmitted predominantly through sexual exposure, to bodily fluids, namely semen and vaginal fluid. It can also be spread by sharing needles or receiving infected blood products. A mother may pass the virus onto her baby during pregnancy, delivery, or by breastfeeding. The virus attacks the immune system allowing other viruses easy passage into the body.
What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?
AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. A syndrome refers to a group of conditions that one can suffer from at one time, which aptly describes what it may feel like to suffer from HIV or AIDS.
The main difference between HIV and AIDS is that HIV is classified as a virus, which can continue to develop in those who have the virus and be transmitted to those who don’t. AIDS is classified as a condition or group of conditions that weaken the immune system and is also known as Stage 3 HIV. It’s important to know that you cannot develop AIDS without already being infected with HIV.
This is what to know about how HIV can develop into AIDS:
- Untreated HIV stimulates an immune response to attack CD4 cells. CD4 cells are responsible for the regulation of immune reactions and activating the cells involved in the innate immune system.
- Diagnosis of AIDS may be measured through CD4 cells. If your number of CD4 cells falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (200 cells/mm3), your diagnosis will be classified as AIDS.
Who is affected by HIV?
According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC), HIV infections decreased 12% overall from 2017 to 2021 . Of the 32,100 new HIV infections reported in the US in 2021:
- 70% were among gay, bisexual, and men who reported male-to-male sexual contact
- 22% were among people who reported heterosexual contact
- 8% were among people who inject drugs
HIV can affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or gender. Still, there are certain risk factors associated with contracting HIV that you should be aware of, these include:
- Having unprotected anal or vaginal sex
- Having another sexually transmitted infection (STI)
- Engaging in harmful use of alcohol and drugs in the context of sexual behavior
- Sharing contaminated needles, syringes, and other injecting equipment
The Symptoms and Signs of HIV
HIV symptoms vary depending on the person and what stage of the disease they are in.
Primary infection (Acute HIV)
In the primary infection stage, people generally experience flu-like symptoms within a month or two after the virus enters the body. This process is referred to as "seroconversion."
Seroconversion symptoms include:
- Night sweats
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Mouth ulcers
You should not assume you have HIV just because you have any of these symptoms. Each of these symptoms can be caused by other illnesses. And some people who have HIV may be asymptomatic for years.
Anyone sexually active should get checked regularly for HIV. If caught early, HIV-positive people with the correct medication can live a relatively everyday life with an average life expectancy. You can do this by visiting a healthcare provider you trust or from the comfort of home with LetsGetChecked’s HIV testing options.
Latent HIV Symptoms
After seroconversion, the disease moves into a dormant state. During this stage, HIV is still active but reproduces at very low levels. People may not have any HIV symptoms during this time, but it is important to note someone can still transmit HIV during this stage. This stage can last 10 years or longer, but some patients progress through latent HIV at a faster rate.
During the latent stage, the virus is continually breaking down the body’s immune system. After enough damage has been done to the immune system, an infected person may start to experience symptoms of a weakened immune system such as:
- Oral candida/thrush
- Recurrent diarrhoea
- Rapid weight loss
- Recurring fever or profuse night sweats
- Oral or genital ulcers
- Recurrent or persistent warts
- Skin problems
Progression to Late-Stage HIV/AIDS
If HIV is not treated, eventually the virus will have damaged the body’s immune system to such a degree that it will progress to Late-Stage HIV otherwise known as AIDS. Many of the most severe symptoms that Late-Stage HIV patients can experience come from opportunistic infections that attack and take advantage of the patient’s damaged immune system, such examples include tuberculosis (TB) or lymphoma.
What to Know About PrEP
PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a medicine that can reduce a person's chances of contracting HIV. According to the CDC, when it is taken correctly, it can be extremely effective at preventing HIV.
PrEP can help protect people who are HIV-negative and who:
- Have a sexual partner with HIV
- Have not consistently used protection when sexually active
- Have been diagnosed with an STI in the past 6 months
Positive Findings About PrEP and Preventing HIV
Australian studies have come forward with positive findings that illustrate that taking preventative measures could drastically improve the quality of life for those who are HIV positive.
The University of New South Wales, Sydney reports that 92% of HIV positive gay and bisexual men are experiencing an undetectable viral load, as a result of successful antiretroviral treatment, or antiretroviral drugs known as ARV.
A viral load is defined as the level of HIV infection in the body at a given time. Someone who may have been diagnosed with HIV is said to have an "undetectable load" when there is a 0% risk associated with transmitting the infection to their sexual partner(s). Breaking a success record for the third year running, the study reports that over 90% of men can no longer transmit HIV.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that new HIV infections have declined among young people . The estimated annual new HIV infections were 12% lower in 2021 compared to 2017—dropping from about 36,500 infections to about 32,100. The data suggests that this decline was driven by improved access to HIV testing, treatment, and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
The only way to fully protect yourself, regardless of your sexual orientation is to get tested regularly. The CDC recommends that everyone between the age of 13 and 64 is tested at least once a year as part of their health routine. Those who are perceived as "high risk" should get tested every three months. High-risk demographics depend on sexuality, lifestyle factors, and family history.
What is HIV?: An Interview With Trinity K Bonet
Trinity K Bonet, also known as Joshua Jones was diagnosed with HIV in 2012 saying “It was a random check up that caught it. I was lucky to catch it while my numbers were still in normal range.”
Bonet first spoke of her diagnosis during Season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Today, she is a HIV/AIDs awareness and prevention advocate and joins LetsGetChecked to share her experience of living with HIV, how she dealt with her diagnosis, and how she hopes to break down stigmas associated with HIV today through her advocacy for sexual health.
"You only live once! Do all you can while you can. Live life with purpose and on purpose."
What one piece of advice would you give to Trinity K before you became Trinity K?
My advice would be to pick a unisex name. Kind of like Ru. Being constantly referred to as Trinity comes with its own set of issues.
What symptoms did you have in the lead-up to your diagnosis?
I didn’t have any symptoms before being diagnosed. After I found out I didn’t get depressed or down on myself. I knew it was something I had to deal with. I was fortunate to be diagnosed and prescribed a medication which doesn’t include negative side effects for me.
Do you think it’s important to use your experience to raise awareness for others who may be living with HIV?
Absolutely! I feel that was the purpose of being given this platform. The only way we can erase the stigmas associated with HIV is to educate those that aren't aware of what HIV is, how to prevent it, and how to treat it.
Why did you become an advocate?
To whom much is given much is required. Being that I have a platform such as Rupaul's Drag Race, it’s important that I use that platform to better the life of those around me. HIV advocacy is how I chose to be of help to my community.
What was the first thing that went through your head when you received your results?
I just wanted to know what I needed to do to stay alive. Since then I have been apart of many panels talking to teens about HIV. I have headlined fundraisers to support this great cause. On December 1, 2018 which is World AIDS Day, I will be hosting Rock The Know 2018 which is a Red Ribbon fashion show in Atlanta Ga. We will raise money and of course, offer free HIV testing, as well as give out information regarding local programs that are available for those that may have been diagnosed with HIV as I have.
You work with Lambda Legal - what do you hope to achieve with this organization?
I hope to be able to do even more to support work for the LGBTQIA and Trans communities. Lambda Legal has been on the front lines fighting for equality for our community. I am honored to be apart of such a great organization. I have partnered with Lambda Legal to raise awareness amongst the drag and gender nonconforming communities. I was blessed to become the face of Lambda Legal for a It’s DragCon NYC 2018 Activation.
Do you think there is still a stigma surrounding sexually transmitted diseases?
Yes, there is. That’s why some people would rather not know. Out of sight is out of mind. That’s definitely not a good thing when it comes to HIV.
"Knowledge is power. Power to love yourself and power to live a healthy life."
Do you think there is a lack of knowledge surrounding LGBTQ+ sexual health, particularly for those who are making a gender transition?
Not everyone knows everything. It’s our job as advocates to educate them. Even with the knowledge, you have to have the mindset to do better. Many people know that unprotected sex puts you at risk but they still have unprotected sex. It’s not always about a lack of knowledge. Some people have impulsive natures and will take risks regardless of the information or facts they may have knowledge of.
What can or should be done to combat this lack of awareness?
Inform them. Make them aware. It all boils back down to educating them and hoping they do what’s necessary after that. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.
Have you ever faced discrimination because of your diagnosis?
Many times. I’ve been shamed for being positive. I’ve been trolled online for admitting that I still have sex. My status does not prevent me from having sex. There are condoms. PrEP and Pep (Pre-exposure prophylaxis is the use of preventative drugs, which should be taken by people who have not yet been exposed to a virus). I take my Genvoya daily and I am currently undetectable.
What advice would you give to someone who has just found out they are HIV positive?
Get into treatment. It’s as simple as a pill a day. Don’t worry about people’s perception of you.
What would you like to see happen around sexual health discourse and how people view and tackle the stigma around sexual health?
I’d like to see a time where there is no stigma and people can live their lives without judgement.
How do think this change can be made?
Each one teachs one. If we take time to educate those around us we can be a part of the change that is needed.
“I’d like to encourage everyone reading to take care of yourselves. If you are positive you can still live a great life.”
How do I test for HIV?
Early detection and treatment are crucial when it comes to slowing and/or preventing the progression of HIV; if the virus is left untreated, it will continue to harm the immune system which is why, if you believe you may have contracted HIV, detecting it early is crucial.
LetsGetChecked’s at-home HIV testing options involve a simple finger prick sample and detect some of the most common sexually transmitted infections.
The test will arrive in discreet packaging with a return envelope and clear instructions inside. Online test results will be available within 2-5 days and our dedicated clinical team will be available throughout the process for support and guidance and will be available to speak with you about your results and the next steps you should take.