What You Need to Know About HIV/AIDS

Learn about the causes, symptoms, and how to stay safe.

By Michael Bohl
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Jussie Smollett’s HIV/AIDS Mission (3:33)

What is HIV?

HIV, which stands for human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks immune cells. Because it attacks immune cells, if untreated, HIV decreases the number of these cells and makes it more likely for HIV-positive people to get other types of infections. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

What is AIDS?

AIDS, which stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by the virus HIV. HIV attacks immune cells called CD4 cells, gradually reducing the number of cells in the body. If the number of CD4 cells drops below 200 cells/mm3 or if that person has an AIDS-defining condition (an infection they would likely only get if they were infected with HIV), that person is said to have AIDS.

How do you get HIV?

HIV is transmitted person-to-person by coming into contact with certain infected bodily fluids. It is most commonly transmitted during sexual activity, including vaginal and anal sex. However, HIV can also be transmitted by sharing needles and from mother-to-child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. HIV is not transmitted through saliva, so it is unlikely to get HIV by kissing an infected individual unless both people have open sores in their mouths. Although HIV is often stigmatized as a disease affecting the homosexual community, it is important to know that everybody can get HIV, including women and heterosexual men.

How can I protect myself against HIV?

Practicing safe sex is one of the most important ways to protect yourself against HIV. This includes using barriers like condoms during sexual activity. If you are an IV drug user, it is also important to avoid sharing needles with anybody else. You can also reduce your risk of getting HIV by taking a medication, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (also called PrEP). PrEP is a medication which, when taken daily, can reduce your chances of developing HIV by 99 to 100 percent, even if you are exposed to it. In an emergency situation, if you think you have been exposed to HIV, talk to your doctor immediately about taking post-exposure prophylaxis (also called PEP). If taken within 72 hours, PEP can reduce the chances that you will develop HIV.

What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?

When you first get HIV, you develop an acute infection which presents as a flu-like illness. Your body then fights the infection and you get better, and you may remain symptom-free for the next 10 years or so. However, over that time, HIV gradually reduces the immune system. Eventually, when the immune system is too weak, people who are infected with HIV may get other types of infections that they otherwise would not get. These include certain kinds of pneumonia, brain infections, and even cancers.

How is HIV diagnosed?

HIV can be detected with both a blood test and a saliva test. These tests either look for the virus itself or for antibodies to the virus. Depending on the test, it may take up to 6 weeks for the test to be accurate, which means even if your test is negative, you may have the virus if you are in the “window period.” It is important to talk to your doctor about your risk factors and what type of testing is best for you. In people who already have HIV, continued testing can tell them how low their immune cell count is and how high their viral load count is. Emerging research suggests that individuals who are HIV positive but have an “undetectable” viral load may not be able to transmit HIV.

How is HIV/AIDS treated?

There is no cure for HIV/AIDS. However, HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition and is no longer universally fatal. If properly treated, people with HIV can live a normal, healthy life. There are a number of antiviral medications that people who are HIV positive can take to keep their viral load down and their CD4 cell count up. Additionally, HIV positive individuals with lower CD4 cell counts can take certain antibiotics prophylactically to help avoid developing other types of infections.

Related:

Understanding the Risk of Sex With a Partner With HIV

Can Charlie Sheen Help in Winning the Battle Against HIV?

The Rise of STDs in the U.S. Sets New Record

Article written by Michael Bohl