Hesperian Health Guides

STIs that affect the whole body

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HealthWiki > A Book for Midwives > Chapter 18: Sexually transmitted infections > STIs that affect the whole body

HIV infection and AIDS

HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system. This is the part of our bodies that fights disease. HIV infection makes it more difficult for our bodies to fight off illness, which we are usually doing all the time. People with HIV can become sick very easily with diseases such as diarrhea, pneumonia, tuberculosis, cancer, and other infections. HIV cannot be cured, but it can be treated with medicines so the person does not get sick as easily. A person who is able to get treatment, eat well, and care for her body, mind, and spirit can live a much longer and healthier life.

HIV spreads when infected blood, breast milk, wetness from the vagina, or semen of someone who has HIV gets into another person’s body. This happens mainly through:

sex with someone
who has HIV.
an infected mother
to her unborn child.
dirty needles, instruments
or cutting tools.
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In places where blood has not been tested for HIV, people can also get HIV from a blood transfusion. Sometimes mothers with HIV also pass HIV to their babies through breast milk.

Signs of HIV and AIDS

People with HIV may not have any signs for a long time, up to 10 years. And even without signs of illness, they can still spread HIV to others. The only sure way to know someone has HIV is with an HIV test.

Someone with AIDS has lost her ability to fight infections so much that she develops many illnesses, including serious and rare illnesses no one usually gets without HIV, such as Kaposi's Sarcoma (a cancer). Another sign of AIDS is a blood test that shows the immune system is very weak.

a man and woman lying together on a mat.
Two people who are both HIV negative and completely faithful to each other can have sex without using condoms and not get HIV from sex.
To prevent the spread of HIV, men and women should:
  • be tested for HIV.
  • get other infections treated.
  • use condoms with any sex partner who has HIV or whose HIV status they do not know.
  • not use syringes, needles, or other tools that could be dirty. Only cut skin with sterilized tools. This includes the tools used for piercings, acupuncture, tattoos, scarring, or circumcision.
  • get treatment for HIV.

Staying Healthy with HIV

When a woman’s immune system is being attacked by HIV, it is very important for her to prevent and treat other infections:

  • If she has any signs of other STIs, like itching, a rash, a strange discharge or sores around the genitals, she should see a health worker.
  • She needs to eat more food and have a healthy diet. Taking a multivitamin pill may also help her.
  • She needs to protect herself from tuberculosis (TB). People with HIV die more from TB than any other illness. A woman with HIV should stay away from people with active TB, and if she develops signs of TB, she should see a health worker right away. Signs of TB are coughing, night sweats, fever, or losing a lot of weight.
  • She should drink only water that is free from germs which could cause diarrhea or other problems.
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Women with HIV also need emotional support. Encourage them to seek support from people they trust. They can learn a lot from others who have HIV.

A woman with HIV who is starting to become ill (for example with cracks and sores around the mouth, weight loss, itching rashes, or many colds) can take cotrimoxazole every day to protect her from many infections and help her immune system stay healthy longer.

If a woman can, she should get a blood test called a CD4 count. This test shows how strong our immune system is by counting CD4 cells. The higher the number is, the better the body can fight infections. A woman whose CD4 count is under 500 needs treatment for her HIV with HIV medicines called ART.

Medicines that control HIV

Medicines called antiretroviral therapy, or ART, can make people with HIV much healthier and help them live much longer. These medicines also help prevent HIV infection for a baby during pregnancy and labor.

ART must be taken every day at the same times to keep working well. If a woman stops taking it, her HIV will grow strong enough to make her ill again. Afterwards, if she restarts taking ART, her HIV may be more difficult to treat with the same medicine.

There are several possible medicine combinations to use. See more detailed information on using ART.

Note: Where ART is still not easily available, it may be difficult for every woman who needs it to take ART for her own health. But even where this is true, women and midwives can probably get medicines to prevent HIV from spreading to babies during birth.

Hepatitis B

A person whose liver is diseased has hepatitis. Hepatitis B is a dangerous infection of the liver caused by a virus. Hepatitis B is spread when the blood or other body fluids from an infected person get into the body of a person who is not infected. Body fluids include spit, wetness from the vagina, and semen. Hepatitis B spreads very easily from one person to another, especially during sex. It can also spread from a pregnant woman to her baby.

Signs of hepatitis (including hepatitis B)
  • no appetite
  • tired and weak feeling
  • yellow eyes and sometimes yellow skin (especially the palms of the hands and soles of the feet)
  • pain in the belly or nausea
  • brown, cola-colored urine, and stools that look whitish
  • or no signs at all
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There is no medicine that will help. In fact, taking medicine can hurt the liver even more. But most people recover from hepatitis B.

People with hepatitis B may feel better sooner if they rest, eat foods that are easy to digest, and do not drink any alcohol.

Hepatitis B and pregnancy

If a woman has signs of hepatitis B while she is pregnant, seek medical advice. The baby will need vaccinations after birth to prevent infection with Hepatitis B.

This page was updated:11 Sep 2019