Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
What is HIV?
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. If left untreated, HIV can lead to the disease AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Unlike some other viruses, the human body can’t get rid of HIV completely. So once you have HIV, you have it for life.
HIV attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells (T cells), which help the immune system fight off infections. If left untreated, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells (T cells) in the body, making the person more likely to get infections or infection-related cancers. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. These opportunistic infections or cancers take advantage of a very weak immune system and signal that the person has AIDS, the last state of HIV infection.
HIV can be controlled
No effective cure for HIV currently exists, but with proper treatment and medical care, HIV can be controlled. The medicine used to treat HIV is called antiretroviral therapy or ART. If taken the right way, every day, this medicine can dramatically prolong the lives of many people with HIV, keep them healthy, and greatly lower their chance of transmitting the virus to others. Today, a person who is diagnosed with HIV, treated before the disease is far advanced, and stays on treatment can live a nearly as long as someone who does not have HIV.
The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. Testing is relatively simple. You can ask your health care provider for an HIV test. Many medical clinics, substance abuse programs, community health centers, and hospitals offer them too. You can also buy a testing kit at a pharmacy or online, but we recommend for it to be done by a medical person.
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Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)
What is AIDS?
AIDS is the stage of infection that occurs when your immune system is badly damaged and you become vulnerable to opportunistic infections.
When is someone diagnosed?
When the number of your CD4 cells (T cells) falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (200 cells/mm3), you are considered to have progressed to AIDS. You can also be diagnosed with AIDS if you develop one or more opportunistic infections, regardless of your CD4 count.
Without treatment, people who are diagnosed with AIDS typically survive about 3 years. People with AIDS need medical treatment to prevent death.
How is HIV spread?
You can get or transmit HIV only through specific activities. Most commonly, people get or transmit HIV through sexual behaviors and needle or syringe use. HIV is not spread easily. Only certain body fluids from a person who has HIV can transmit HIV::
- Pre-seminal fluid
- Rectal fluids
- Breast milk
If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, get tested. This is the fastest and safest way to get control of the virus, if you have been infected.
Ways HIV is transmitted
HIV is spread mainly by:
- Having anal or vaginal sex with someone who has HIV without using a condom or taking medicines to prevent or treat HIV.
- Anal sex is the highest-risk sexual behavior. For the HIV-negative partner, receptive anal sex is riskier than insertive anal sex.
- Vaginal sex is the second highest-risk sexual behavior.
- Sharing needles or syringes, rinse water, or other equipment used to prepare injection drugs with someone who has HIV. HIV can live in a used needle up to 42 days depending on temperature and other factors.>
Less commonly, HIV may be spread:
- From mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. Although the risk can be high if a mother is living with HIV and not taking medicine, recommendations to test all pregnant women for HIV and start HIV treatment immediately have lowered the number of babies who are born with HIV.
- By being stuck with an HIV-contaminated needle or other sharp object. This is a risk mainly for health care workers.
In extremely rare cases, HIV has been transmitted by:
- Oral sex. In general, there is little to no risk of getting HIV from oral sex. But transmission of HIV, though extremely rare, is theoretically possible if an HIV-positive man ejaculates in his partner’s mouth during oral sex.
- Receiving blood transfusions, blood products, or organ/tissue transplants that are contaminated with HIV.
- Eating food that has been pre-chewed by an HIV-infected person. The contamination occurs when infected blood from a caregiver’s mouth mixes with food while chewing. The only known cases are among infants.
- Being bitten by a person with HIV. Each of the very small number of documented cases has involved severe trauma with extensive tissue damage and the presence of blood. There is no risk of transmission if the skin is not broken.
- Contact between broken skin, wounds, or mucous membranes and HIV-infected blood or blood-contaminated body fluids.
- Deep, open-mouth kissing if the person with HIV has sores or bleeding gums and blood from the HIV-positive partner gets into the bloodstream of the HIV-negative partner. HIV is not spread through saliva.
HIV is not spread by...
HIV does not survive long outside the human body (such as on surfaces) and it cannot reproduce outside a human host. It is not spread by:
- Air or water
- Mosquitoes, ticks or other insects
- Saliva, tears, or sweat that is not mixed with the blood of an HIV-positive person
- Shaking hands, hugging, sharing toilets, sharing dishes/drinking glasses, or closed-mouth or “social” kissing with someone who is HIV-positive
- Drinking fountains
- Other sexual activities that don’t involve the exchange of body fluids (for example, touching).
I have HIV, does that mean I have AIDS?
No. The terms “HIV” and “AIDS” can be confusing because both terms refer to the same disease. However, “HIV” refers to the virus itself, and “AIDS” refers to the late stage of HIV infection, when an HIV-infected person’s immune system is severely damaged and has difficulty fighting diseases and certain cancers.
Before the development of certain medications, people with HIV could progress to AIDS in just a few years. But today, most people who are HIV-positive do not progress to AIDS. That’s because if you have HIV and you take ART consistently, you can keep the level of HIV in your body low. This will help keep your body strong and healthy and reduce the likelihood that you will ever progress to AIDS. It will also help lower your risk of transmitting HIV to others.
How can I tell if I have HIV?
You cannot rely on symptoms to tell whether you have HIV. The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. Knowing your status is important because it helps you make healthy decisions to prevent getting or transmitting HIV.
The symptoms of HIV vary, depending on the individual and what stage of the disease you are in: the early stage, the clinical latency stage, or AIDS (the late stage of HIV infection).
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