Newsletter

Stay up to date on all things HIV. Sign up and we’ll send you the latest news, resources, scientific breakthroughs, events, tips, and much more.

HIV: The Basics

  • All
  • Diagnosis & Transmission
  • Symptoms
  • Treatment

What is HIV?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that causes the disease known as HIV and, if left untreated, AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.) HIV is commonly transmitted through contact with or transfer of semen, vaginal fluids, or blood. HIV is a lifelong infection with no currently known cure.

Is HIV the same as AIDS?

No. HIV is an infection that can cause AIDS but they are not the same. Without proper treatment, HIV can weaken your immune system to the point that you can contract AIDS.

How common is HIV?

By the end of 2014, there were an estimated 1.2 million people living with an HIV infection in the US, with 50,000-55,000 new cases every year. Globally, it is estimated that 35-37 million people have HIV.

Who is most likely to contract HIV?

The most common group of people who contract HIV are gay or bisexual men. HIV is also disproportionately more common among the Black/African Americans and Hispanic/Latino populations. Engaging in anal or vaginal sex without a condom or sharing needles or syringes are common ways for people to contract HIV.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

Early symptoms of HIV include fever, swollen or sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck and under the arms. Some people will have a flat red rash on the torso, arms, and legs that looks similar to the rash caused by mononucleosis. However, many people who acquire HIV show no symptoms at all.

How do you get HIV?

HIV is most commonly transmitted through sexual contact but is also contracted through blood. In the latter case, HIV enters the bloodstream in the lymphocytes by direct inoculation into the bloodstream, usually from a blood transfusion or sharing needles (often related to drug use).  More commonly, however, it is transmitted sexually through the mucosal areas in either the rectum or vaginal cervical tissue.

How do I know if I have HIV?

The best way to know if you have HIV is to take an HIV test. If you have certain risk factors (for example, if you are an intravenous drug user or a gay man engaging in sex without a condom) or believe that you might have HIV, getting tested regularly is important. It’s important for your own health to get tested–you will be able to start medications that will help–and it’s also important for the community–you can be more careful about possibly transmitting it to others.

What tests are there for HIV?

There are various tests for HIV that you can purchase and use at home. Always go to a healthcare provider for follow-up testing if a home test is positive. Tests include nucleic acid tests, antigen/antibody tests, and antibody tests (the most common at-home tests). All of these tests are generally accurate but may not be able to detect the virus until a period of time after the infection occurs.

Can you be immune to HIV?

No. However, there is a genetic mutation that occurs in one of the receptors for HIV in some people (particularly with a Scandinavian background) that can protect them from the progression of HIV into AIDS. They can become infected with HIV (and, importantly, they are still able to transmit the disease to others), but the infection doesn’t kill CD4 cells the way it does in people without this mutation.

Are people with HIV contagious?

Yes, but not in the way we generally think of “being contagious.” HIV does not spread in the way a cold or some other types of virus spread, for example, through the air or through casual contact. People with HIV are contagious in that they can transmit the infection through sexual contact and blood transfusion. People with HIV are most contagious early on in the disease–often before they’ve been diagnosed or even show symptoms. Even though they show no symptoms, their blood may contain high amounts of the virus that can be passed on through sexual contact or through blood. After about 6 months, the amount of the virus in an infected person’s blood goes down. However, an infected person is still able to spread the disease to others, and if the disease progresses to AIDS, the virus becomes very contagious.

What tests are there for HIV?

There are various tests for HIV that you can purchase and use at home. Always go to a healthcare provider for follow-up testing if a home test is positive. Tests include nucleic acid tests, antigen/antibody tests, and antibody tests (the most common at-home tests). All of these tests are generally accurate but may not be able to detect the virus until a period of time after the infection occurs.

Can you be immune to HIV?

No. However, there is a genetic mutation that occurs in one of the receptors for HIV in some people (particularly with a Scandinavian background) that can protect them from the progression of HIV into AIDS. They can become infected with HIV (and, importantly, they are still able to transmit the disease to others), but the infection doesn’t kill CD4 cells the way it does in people without this mutation.

Are people with HIV contagious?

Yes, but not in the way we generally think of “being contagious.” HIV does not spread in the way a cold or some other types of virus spread, for example, through the air or through casual contact. People with HIV are contagious in that they can transmit the infection through sexual contact and blood transfusion. People with HIV are most contagious early on in the disease–often before they’ve been diagnosed or even show symptoms. Even though they show no symptoms, their blood may contain high amounts of the virus that can be passed on through sexual contact or through blood. After about 6 months, the amount of the virus in an infected person’s blood goes down. However, an infected person is still able to spread the disease to others, and if the disease progresses to AIDS, the virus becomes very contagious.

How do you treat HIV?

HIV is treated through antiretroviral drugs and can be controlled with these medications. With antiretroviral therapy, people with HIV can live normal lives.

Is there a cure for HIV?

No. There is not currently a cure for HIV but with antiretroviral drugs, people with HIV can live longer and healthier lives.

Can you prevent yourself from getting HIV?

Over the last few years, a program called Pre-Exposure HIV Prophylaxis (PrEP) has been developed as a medication that can prevent the spread of HIV. It is a prescription that is often paid for by insurance companies for partners of patients who have HIV. It is a tablet that is taken every day and is very effective if used properly. A non-infected person can use this medication to prevent the virus from taking hold in the body. It may prevent someone without HIV from getting it, but it is not a cure for someone already infected with HIV.

Send this to a friend