HIV/AIDS: Get The Facts

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is the virus that can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Unlike some other viruses, the human body cannot get rid of HIV. That means that once you have HIV, you have it for life.

Where did HIV come from?

Scientists identified a type of chimpanzee in West Africa as the source of HIV infection in humans. They believe that the chimpanzee version of the immunodeficiency virus (called simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV) most likely was transmitted to humans and mutated into HIV when humans hunted these chimpanzees for meat and came into contact with their infected blood. Studies show that HIV may have jumped from apes to humans as far back as the late 1800s. Over decades, the virus slowly spread across Africa and later into other parts of the world. We know that the virus has existed in the United States since at least the mid- to late 1970s.

HIV/AIDS

  • What is HIV?

    HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is the virus that can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Unlike some other viruses, the human body cannot get rid of HIV. That means that once you have HIV, you have it for life.

    No safe and effective cure currently exists, but scientists are working hard to find one, and remain hopeful. Meanwhile, with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled. Treatment for HIV is often called antiretroviral therapy or ART. It can dramatically prolong the lives of many people infected with HIV and lower their chance of infecting others. Before the introduction of ART in the mid-1990s, people with HIV could progress to AIDS in just a few years. Today, someone diagnosed with HIV and treated before the disease is far advanced can have a nearly normal life expectancy.

    HIV affects specific cells of the immune system, called CD4 cells, or T cells. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. When this happens, HIV infection leads to AIDS.

  • What are the stages of HIV?

    HIV disease has a well-documented progression. Untreated, HIV is almost universally fatal because it eventually overwhelms the immune system—resulting in acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV treatment helps people at all stages of the disease, and treatment can slow or prevent progression from one stage to the next.

    A person can transmit HIV to others during any of these stages:

    Acute infection: Within 2 to 4 weeks after infection with HIV, you may feel sick with flu-like symptoms. This is called acute retroviral syndrome (ARS) or primary HIV infection, and it’s the body’s natural response to the HIV infection. (Not everyone develops ARS, however—and some people may have no symptoms.):

    During this period of infection, large amounts of HIV are being produced in your body. The virus uses important immune system cells called CD4 cells to make copies of itself and destroys these cells in the process. Because of this, the CD4 count can fall quickly.

    Your ability to spread HIV is highest during this stage because the amount of virus in the blood is very high. Eventually, your immune response will begin to bring the amount of virus in your body back down to a stable level. At this point, your CD4 count will then begin to increase, but it may not return to pre-infection levels.

    Your ability to spread HIV is highest during this stage because the amount of virus in the blood is very high. Eventually, your immune response will begin to bring the amount of virus in your body back down to a stable level. At this point, your CD4 count will then begin to increase, but it may not return to pre-infection levels.

    AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome): This is the stage of infection that occurs when your immune system is badly damaged and you become vulnerable to infections and infection-related cancers called opportunistic illnesses. When the number of your CD4 cells falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (200 cells/mm3), you are considered to have progressed to AIDS. (Normal CD4 counts are between 500 and 1,600 cells/mm3.) You can also be diagnosed with AIDS if you develop one or more opportunistic illnesses, regardless of your CD4 count. Without treatment, people who are diagnosed with AIDS typically survive about 3 years. Once someone has a dangerous opportunistic illness, life expectancy without treatment falls to about 1 year. People with AIDS need medical treatment to prevent death.

  • How Can I tell if I'm infected with HIV?

    The only way to know if you are infected with HIV is to be tested. You cannot rely on symptoms to know whether you have HIV. Many people who are infected with HIV do not have any symptoms at all for 10 years or more. Some people who are infected with HIV report having flu-like symptoms (often described as “the worst flu ever”) 2 to 4 weeks after exposure.
    Symptoms can include:

    • Fever
    • Enlarged lymph nodes
    • Sore throat
    • Rash

    However, you should not assume you have HIV if you have any of these symptoms. Each of these symptoms can be caused by other illnesses. Again, the only way to determine whether you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection. Click here to find an HIV testing site.

    These resources are confidential. You can also ask your health care provider to give you an HIV test.

    Two types of home testing kits are available in most drugstores or pharmacies: one involves pricking your finger for a blood sample, sending the sample to a laboratory, then phoning in for results. The other involves getting a swab of fluid from your mouth, using the kit to test it, and reading the results in 20 minutes. Confidential counseling and referrals for treatment are available with both kinds of home tests.

    If you test positive for HIV, you should see your doctor as soon as possible to begin treatment.

  • Where can I get PrEP and how much does it cost?

    PrEP is only available with a prescription from a health care provider. Many private insurance plans cover PrEP, as does Medicaid, the state-run health program for lower-income persons. If you do not have insurance, ask your health care provider about pharmaceutical patient assistance programs which may be able to offset the cost of the medication.

  • Is there a cure for HIV?

    For most people, the answer is no. Most reports of a cure involve HIV-infected people who needed treatment for a cancer that would have killed them otherwise. But these treatments are very risky, even life-threatening, and are used only when the HIV-infected people would have died without them. Antiretroviral therapy (ART), however, can dramatically prolong the lives of many people infected with HIV and lower their chance of infecting others. It is important that people get tested for HIV and know that they are infected early so that medical care and treatment have the greatest effect.

  • Is there a link between HIV and other STDs?

    People with other more common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs),such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes or syphilis, are at greater risk of becoming infected with HIV if they have unprotected sex with someone who is positive.

    In addition, if someone with HIV is infected with another STD, he or she is more likely to transmit the virus through sexual contact. Having another STD also can negatively affect the health of an HIV positive person. There are an estimated 19 million new STD cases occurring in the U.S. each year. As many as one in two sexually-active Americans will contract an STD by the age of 25.

    The only way to know if you have any STD, including HIV, is to ask to be tested. All STDs, including HIV, are treatable, and many other STDs are curable. Getting treated for an STD can help prevent more serious health effects and reduce the risk of contracting HIV if exposed.

  • How do I reduce my risk of getting HIV?

    Condoms are a highly effective, readily available and inexpensive option for reducing the risk of contracting HIV through vaginal, anal and oral sex. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), male latex condoms when used consistently and correctly are highly effective in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV and many other STDs.

    The Food and Drug Administration also recently approved the first daily antiretroviral agent for pre-exposure prophylaxis, often referred to as PrEP, for use by those who are negative to reduce the risk of contracting HIV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PrEP is intended to be used in combination with, not to replace, other prevention methods such as condoms. Strict adherence to the daily regimen and regular HIV testing are critical.

    HIV can also be spread by sharing needles. To find a drug treatment program near you using the hiv.gov locator. If you are using injection drugs and believe you cannot stop, reduce your risk of infection by never sharing needles, syringes or other drug preparation equipment. You can get clean needles from pharmacies or needle-exchange programs. Only use syringes that come from a reliable source.

    See more in Prevent and Protect.

  • If I am HIV positive what are my options?

    Antiretroviral treatment is recommended for all people living with HIV, according to guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services. Antiretroviral medications work to lower the levels of the virus in the bloodstream – viral load – which helps to prevent the progression of HIV to AIDS, the most advanced stage of HIV, and keep you healthier if you already have an AIDS diagnosis.

    Even if you do not feel sick or show symptoms, it’s important to consult a health care provider as soon as possible to get on treatment. In addition to benefiting your own health and well-being, people who begin medication early and take it regularly reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to sexual partners by as much as 96 percent. Also, treatment significantly reduces the likelihood of an HIV-positive pregnant woman transmitting HIV to her baby.

    See more in HIV/AIDS Treatment..

  • Is there a vaccine or cure for HIV and/or AIDS?

    There is no vaccine to prevent HIV or a cure for those who are already infected, but there are highly effective medications– called antiretrovirals or ARVs- 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 anyone who is HIV positive go on antiretroviral treatment as soon as they are diagnosed.

  • Are some types of sex riskier than others?

    Unprotected sex of all kinds (anal, vaginal and oral) is the most common way people get infected with HIV in the U.S. “Unprotected” means sex without barrier protection, like a condom. Remember that HIV can be present in pre-cum so pulling out early may not decrease risk. For gay and bisexual men, anal sex is the most common way HIV is transmitted.

    It is possible to get HIV and other STDs—including herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea and genital warts– during oral sex if your partner is infected, although the risk is generally lower from unprotected oral sex than from unprotected anal or vaginal sex. Still, it’s a good idea to use a barrier when giving oral sex to prevent fluids (like semen, blood, vaginal fluids) from entering your mouth. For oral sex on a penis, you should use a non-lubricated latex or polyurethane (plastic) condom.

    For oral sex on the anus (“rimming”), the risk of getting infected with HIV is lower; however, rimming may expose you to other infections, such as hepatitis or parasites. To reduce risk while rimming, use a latex barrier (like a natural rubber latex sheet, dental dam or cut-open condom that makes a square) between your mouth and your partner’s anus.

  • What does it mean to have an undetectable viral load?

    An undetectable viral load means that the level of HIV present in a patient’s blood has been pushed to a very low level. Having an undetectable viral load, also referred to as being virally suppressed or having one’s virus “under control,” means better health for the HIV positive individual and also reduces the chances that he/she will pass the virus on to others. Someone who is undetectable is still HIV positive, and it is still possible for them to pass HIV on to others.

    However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only one in four Americans with HIV today has their virus “under control” either because they don’t know they are HIV positive or otherwise are not on treatment. As of 2012, guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services recommend that anyone diagnosed with HIV begin treatment immediately.