HIV/AIDS 101

Get informed. Read up and get the facts on HIV/AIDS, including how it is (and is not) spread. You might be surprised — there are a lot of misconceptions out there.

What is HIV?

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus, commonly known as HIV, is the virus that causes AIDS. It is spread when infected bodily fluids from one person enter another person’s body. Pre-cum, semen, vaginal fluids, blood, and breast milk are the fluids that can transmit the virus. Unprotected sex is the most common way people get infected with HIV in the U.S., followed by sharing needles.

HIV attacks the very cells which normally defend the body against illness. Eventually, HIV weakens the immune system to such an extent that the body can no longer fight off other diseases and infections.

What is AIDS?

AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, is the most advanced stage of HIV. There are two ways that doctors decide when a person infected with HIV is considered to have advanced to an AIDS diagnosis:

From other infections: When a person’s immune system is so weakened by HIV that one or more specific illnesses, called opportunistic infections, takes hold. These illnesses do not generally affect a person with a healthy immune system.

From certain blood tests: When the number of healthy immune system cells in an HIV positive person’s body drops to a certain low point.

The key to slowing the progression of HIV to AIDS is early testing, care, and treatment.

Is there a difference between HIV and AIDS?

HIV and AIDS are part of a continuum. HIV is the virus that infects the body and AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV. So, not everyone who has HIV has AIDS, but, everyone who has AIDS is infected with HIV. How quickly someone with HIV advances to AIDS depends on many different factors. One important factor is how soon after HIV infection a person is diagnosed and gets into care and on treatment. Also, just like any other health problem, different people’s bodies respond differently to HIV. So, it is important to get tested, get care if you are positive and protect yourself and your partner(s).

How does someone get HIV?

HIV is primarily spread through unprotected sexual contact– that is, vaginal, anal, or oral sex. The chances of getting or passing HIV from oral sex are lower than vaginal or anal sex, but there is still a risk. HIV can also be spread by sharing needles.

Women who are HIV positive can pass HIV to their baby before or during delivery or through breastfeeding after birth. Medications are available, however, that greatly reduce the chance of an HIV positive mother passing HIV to her baby.

Certain bodily fluids that can be shared between people during unprotected sex, such as semen, pre-cum, vaginal fluids, or blood, can contain the virus, as can blood that is shared by sharing needles. Saliva, tears or sweat have never been shown to cause an HIV infection. Kissing is also safe (open mouth kissing is considered very low risk.) HIV is not spread through casual contact like holding hands or hugging, or by sharing drinks or sitting on toilet seats.

Who is at risk for HIV?

Often, people don’t think of themselves or their partners as being at risk, so they don’t worry about using protection or getting tested. But anyone who has had unprotected sex, or who has injected drugs, or has had a partner who has done either of these things, or whose partner’s other partners may have done these things, may be at risk.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in five people who are HIV positive doesn’t know it. The CDC recommends routine HIV testing for everyone between the ages of 13 and 64. This does not mean though that testing is done automatically when you see a health care provider even if you have blood drawn. The only way to know for sure you are being tested is to ask to be tested.

How would I know if I or someone I know is HIV positive?

The only way to know if you or anyone else is HIV positive is to get tested. As with other STDs, HIV often has NO symptoms, so many people who are infected don’t even know it. It is estimated that one in five Americans with HIV today is not aware they are positive; for other STDs it’s even higher.

What is the link between HIV and other STDs?

People with other sexually transmitted diseases (such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes or syphilis) are at greater risk of getting HIV if they have unprotected sex with someone who is positive. In addition, if someone with HIV is also infected with another STD, he or she is more likely to transmit the virus through sexual contact.

The only way to know if you have an STD, including HIV, is to get tested. Getting treated for an STD can help prevent more serious health effects and reduce your risk of contracting HIV if you are exposed.

How do I reduce my risk of getting HIV?

Use condoms each and every time you have sex. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), male latex condoms when used consistently and correctly condoms are highly effective in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV and many other STDs.

It is also important to know your own – and your partner’s – HIV status and the only way to know is to get tested together. People who don’t know they have HIV can pass the virus to others without knowing it. By using condoms and being in regular care, someone with HIV protects both themself and their partners. People with HIV who take their medication regularly reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others by as much as 96 percent. .

Is there a vaccine or cure for HIV?

There is no vaccine to prevent HIV or a cure for those who are already infected. But there are effective medications– called antiretrovirals – available that help people with HIV to live long and healthy lives.

Antiretroviral treatments work to lower the amount of HIV in the body which, when taken regularly, means better health, a longer life, and less chance of spreading the disease to others. Early diagnosis and treatment can also delay the progression of HIV to AIDS. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends antiretroviral treatment for everyone who is HIV positive

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