Frequently Asked Questions
- What is HIV?
- What is AIDS?
- What are the symptoms of HIV infection?
- How can I tell if someone has HIV?
- How do you get and avoid getting HIV?
- How is HIV transmitted?
- Is there a cure for AIDS?
What is HIV?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is a virus. Some viruses, such as the ones that cause the common cold or the flu, stay in the body for only a few days. Other viruses, such as the HIV virus, never goes away. When a person becomes infected with the HIV virus, that person becomes "HIV positive" and will always be HIV positive.
Over time, the HIV virus invades and kills white blood cells. These white blood cells are commonly called "T cells". The lack of a sufficient number of white blood cells may leave the body unable to fight off certain kinds of infections and cancers.
What is AIDS?AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and is caused by the HIV virus. The terms HIV and AIDS can be confusing because both terms describe the same disease. Think of AIDS as advanced HIV disease.
A person with AIDS has an immune system so weakened by HIV disease that the person usually becomes sick from one of several opportunistic infections or cancers such as PCP (a type of pneumonia) or KS (Kaposi's sarcoma), wasting syndrome (involuntary weight loss), memory impairment, or tuberculosis to name a few. If someone with HIV disease is diagnosed with one of many opportunistic infections or if the "T cell" count is below 200, he/she is said to have AIDS. Once a person contracts the HIV virus it usually takes 2 to 10 years or possibly more to develop into AIDS. Once a person has been diagnosed with AIDS she/he is always considered to have AIDS, even if the person's "T-cell" count goes up again and/or they recover from the opportunistic disease that defined their AIDS diagnosis.
What are the symptoms of HIV infection?The first symptoms of HIV infection can resemble the same symptoms as the common cold or flu. Some people get fever, headache, sore muscles and joints, stomach ache, swollen lymph glands, or a skin rash for one or two weeks. Other people have no symptoms. Because of the nonspecific symptoms associated with primary or acute HIV infection, symptoms are not an entirely reliable way to diagnose HIV infection. Testing for HIV antibodies is the only way to definitively determine whether you have been infected with the HIV virus. However, the HIV antibody test only works if the infected person's immune system has developed antibodies to HIV. During the "window period" (the period of time between the initial HIV exposure and the time the body produces HIV antibodies - 2 weeks to 6 months, but usually 3 months), standard HIV antibody testing is ineffective.
How can I tell if someone has HIV?There is no way to know for sure if someone has HIV. Many people with HIV look perfectly healthy. Other people who are sick with HIV may have symptoms that are identical to other common illnesses. You cannot tell by looking whether someone is HIV positive.
How do you get and avoid getting HIV?HIV is a virus that infects people by getting inside their blood cells. To avoid getting HIV, you must prevent the blood, semen, vaginal fluids, or breast milk of someone who is infected from entering your body through your mouth, vagina, anus, tip of your penis, or breaks in your skin. The body fluids containing HIV include blood (including menstrual blood), semen and possibly pre-seminal fluid ("pre-cum"), vaginal secretions, and breast milk.
How is HIV transmitted?HIV is transmitted when HIV infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids, or breast milk enter another person's body. This most often occurs during unprotected sex, during IV drug use (when needles or other drug paraphernalia are shared. Anyone who is infected with HIV can transmit it to another person. They may not appear sick. They may not yet have AIDS. They may be taking effective treatment for their infection. Infected women who become pregnant may transmit the HIV virus to their newborns and are much more likely to do so if they are not treated effectively.
It is important to realize that many people with HIV infection do not look sick.
Many people with HIV infection have not been tested and don't know they are infected.
HIV is not transmitted by casual contact.
The HIV virus dies quickly outside the body and is easily killed by soap or common disinfectants such as bleach.
There is no risk of HIV infection from:
- donating blood
- mosquito bites
- toilet seats
- shaking hands
- sharing eating utensils
- food or objects handled by people with HIV or AIDS
- spending time in the same house, business, or public place with a person with HIV/AIDS
Is there a cure for AIDS?
There is no cure for AIDS. There are drugs that can slow down the HIV virus, and slow down the damage to your immune system, but there is no way to get all the HIV out of your body.
There are drugs that prevent or treat opportunistic infections. In most cases, these drugs work very well. The newer, stronger, anti-HIV drugs have also helped reduce the rates of most opportunistic infections.