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Get the Facts About HIV/AIDS

What is HIV?

“HIV” stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. To understand what that means, let’s break it down:

Human – This particular virus can only infect human beings.

Immunodeficiency – HIV weakens your immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection. A "deficient" immune system can't protect you.

Virus – A virus can only reproduce itself by taking over a cell in the body of its host.

HIV is a virus that attacks a key part of the immune system – the T-cells or CD4 cells - which help defend the body against illness. Left untreated, HIV can destroy so many CD4 cells that your body can't fight infections and diseases anymore. When that happens, HIV can lead to an AIDS diagnosis.

Not everyone who has HIV progresses to AIDS. With ongoing treatment, a person with HIV can live a normal life span and have children without HIV. In addition to improving health, antiretrovirals (ARVs) – the medications used to treat HIV – also help prevent the spread of the disease. Click here for more about ARVs and how they work.

What is AIDS?

“AIDS” stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. To understand what that means, let’s break it down:

Acquired – AIDS is not something you inherit from your parents. You acquire AIDS after birth.

Immuno – Your body's immune system includes all the organs and cells that work to fight off infection or disease.

Deficiency – You get AIDS when your immune system is "deficient," or isn't working the way it should.

Syndrome – A syndrome is a collection of symptoms and signs of disease. AIDS is a syndrome, rather than a single disease, because it is a complex illness with a wide range of complications and symptoms.

AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, is a clinical diagnosis that indicates an advanced stage of HIV.

An AIDS diagnosis is determined when the number of healthy immune system cells (also known as one’s CD4 or T-cell count) in an HIV- positive person’s body drops to a low level or when someone with HIV develops certain illnesses, called opportunistic infections, which result from a weakened immune system. These may include Kaposi’s sarcoma, tuberculosis, lymphoma, pneumonia, and other cancers such as invasive cervical cancer. Someone with HIV may receive an AIDS diagnosis from a health care provider if they have one or more specific opportunistic infections, certain cancers, or a very low number of healthy immune system cells.

Once someone receives an AIDS diagnosis, it is not reversed – meaning that person will always be considered to have AIDS – but an individual’s condition can improve with proper treatment. With antiretrovirals (ARVs) – prescribed medications for people living with HIV - and ongoing medical care, it is possible to increase one’s T-cell count and reduce the amount of the virus in one’s body (also known as viral load). Click here for more about ARVs and how they work.

How does someone get HIV?

The most common way HIV is spread is through unprotected sex with someone with HIV who is not aware of their status or not on ARVs. HIV can also be transmitted by sharing needles. “Unprotected” here refers to sex without condoms or the use of medications that reduce the risk of passing HIV from one person to another. Open mouth kissing also can present a risk (still low) if there is blood or sores in the mouth.

You cannot get HIV through sharing glasses or plates, food, holding hands, toilet seats, or other casual contact. HIV is also not spread through kissing, saliva, tears, or sweat.

HIV can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy, birth and through breastfeeding, although this risk can be almost eliminated – reduced to less than one percent – with antiretroviral (ARVs) and supervised medical care during pregnancy. After birth, a baby may also be put on ARVs for a short period to reduce the chance of getting HIV. ARVs are prescribed medications for people with HIV to improve health. Click here for more about HIV treatment.

*According to the CDC:  "Though oral sex carries a much lower risk of HIV transmission than other sexual activities, the risk is not zero. It is difficult to measure the exact risk because people who practice oral sex may also practice other forms of sex during the same encounter. When transmission occurs, it may be the result of oral sex or other, riskier sexual activities, such as anal or vaginal sex. Several factors may increase the risk of HIV transmission through oral sex, including oral ulcers, bleeding gums, genital sores, and the presence of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)."

Why have some populations been more affected by HIV than others?

One reason some groups and areas have been more affected by HIV/AIDS than others is because the HIV prevalence – the percent of the population that has HIV – is already high. In other words, the chances of coming in contact with the virus and thus also the risk of infection is greater.

A common misperception is that groups with higher rates of HIV are acting less responsibly. In fact, research shows that this is not the case. Groups more at-risk for HIV are generally found to get tested more frequently, use condoms more often and take other precautions to protect against HIV as compared with other groups. The chance of being exposed to the virus is just greater in these social networks and so the response must also be greater.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

As with many other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), HIV often shows NO symptoms initially. As a result, people who have HIV often don’t find out until much later when the disease is further along and treatments may be less effective.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about one in eight people in the U.S. who have HIV do not know they do.

With ongoing treatment, a person with HIV can live a normal life span. In addition to improving health, antiretrovirals (ARVs) – the medications used to treat HIV – also help prevent the spread of the disease.

The only way to know if you or anyone else has HIV is to get tested. To find HIV testing locations in your area, visit the locator.

Is there a vaccine or cure for HIV and/or AIDS?

While there is no cure for HIV yet, antiretrovirals (ARVs) work to reduce the amount of virus in the body. An undetectable viral load is when is when the amount of HIV in the blood is so low it can’t be detected. The lower the viral load the less likely it is to pass HIV to a sexual partner.

To get the full health and prevention benefits of ARVs, it is important that someone with HIV stay connected to care and continue to take their medications as prescribed, even if they don’t feel sick. Click here for more about ARVs and how they work.