HIV/AIDS

HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system and can lead to AIDS, a clinical diagnoses that indicates an advanced stage of HIV. HIV may not show symptoms initially. Testing is recommended as a part of routine healthcare.

There is no cure for HIV/AIDS, but antiretroviral (ARV) prescription medications allow people with HIV to live normal, healthy lifespans. Consistent ARV use also prevents transmission to others. Left untreated, HIV can lead to death.

Click on a question below to learn more about HIV/AIDS.


How do you get HIV?

The most common way people get HIV is through unprotected anal or vaginal sex with someone with HIV who is not aware of their status or not on consistent antiretroviral treatment. According to the CDC, HIV transmission through oral sex is extremely rare.

Sharing used needles, syringes, or other drug preparation equipment increases the risk of getting HIV.

HIV can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy, birth and through breastfeeding, although this risk can be almost eliminated with treatment.

HIV is NOT spread through sharing glasses or plates, food, holding hands, toilet seats, or other casual contact. You also cannot get HIV through closed-mouth or “social” kissing or saliva.

When used consistently and correctly, condoms protect against HIV and many other STDs. Another prevention option is PrEP – pre-exposure prophylaxis – a once-a-day pill for people who do not have HIV and want added protection. It is available only by prescription and is highly effective in protecting against getting HIV. PrEP does not protect against other STDs.

PEP – post-exposure prophylaxis – is a prescription medication that can be taken within 72 hours after potential exposure to prevent HIV. It is for emergency use only, and not intended for regular, ongoing use. If you are prescribed PEP you will need to take it once or twice daily for 28 days. Contact your healthcare provider or emergency room for a prescription.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

Like most STDs, HIV often does not show any symptoms initially, even for years. Sometimes people may experience symptoms within a few weeks of exposure, however these symptoms may go unnoticed or look like other common illnesses. The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested.

Click here for more about HIV testing.

What's involved in HIV testing?

There are several different types of HIV tests. Some use blood, others test cells inside the mouth. HIV blood tests may be done by finger stick or a draw from the inner arm. Oral HIV tests use a swab of the mouth. Rapid HIV tests can provide results in under 20 minutes, sometimes as fast as one minute. Home tests can be purchased in many drug stores.

If you have a preference for the type of  HIV test, ask your healthcare provider what options are available.

To find free and low-cost HIV testing near you, go to greaterthan.org/services.

How do you treat HIV?

Antiretrovirals (ARVs) – prescription medications used to treat HIV – work to lower the amount of virus in the body (viral load), often to levels that are undetectable by standard lab tests. The vast majority of people who take their ARVs every day as prescribed and remain in care are able to achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load. In addition to improving health, getting and keeping a low viral load also prevents the spread of the virus to others.

A person diagnosed with HIV today who is on ongoing ARV medication and in medical care can live a normal, healthy lifespan and have children without HIV.

What happens if HIV is not treated?

Taking HIV treatment every day as prescribed prevents illness and the spread of the virus to others. Left untreated, HIV can lead to death.

Missing doses of antiretrovirals (ARVs) can cause the amount of virus in the body to rise. This may result in the virus becoming resistant to a particular HIV treatment, possibly making that treatment not work as well, including reducing the preventative benefits.

If you are having difficulty taking or keeping up with your treatment, talk with your healthcare provider as soon as possible and consider using additional strategies to prevent sexual HIV transmission. Your provider can work with you to help get you back on track, including trying different ARVs if needed.

The information on this page is adapted from the CDC and Planned Parenthood.

Getting Tested

HIV and other STD testing is available at most doctor's offices and health clinics. Many health departments also offer testing. It's fast, easy and most people pay little or nothing.

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