What Is HIV?

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, attacks and destroys the immune system. If left untreated, it can result in acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, the most advanced stage of HIV infection. Unlike other viruses, HIV never leaves the body completely, therefore once acquired, you have it for the rest of your life. Currently, there is no cure for HIV; however, there are treatments available to help control the virus, prolong life, and reduce the chance of transmitting it to others.


How does HIV affect the body?

HIV attacks CD4 cells (T cells), which help the immune system fight infections. Left untreated, HIV reduces the number of T cells in the body, increasing the likelihood of infections and certain cancers. Over time, HIV can destroy so many T cells, the body is left unable to fight off any infections or diseases.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is transmitted through contact with certain body fluids, such as blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, and breast milk. Exposure to these fluids can happen during unprotected sex, sharing needles, or mothers passing the virus to their children during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. You cannot acquire HIV through contact with a person living with HIV’s sweat, tears, saliva, bath or pool water, toilet seats, doorknobs, or by sharing dishes or drinking glasses, hugging, or shaking hands. Also, HIV does not spread through the air or insect bites such as mosquitos and ticks.

What are the common HIV symptoms?

Flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, or rash, are common within a few weeks of HIV acquisition. These symptoms may come and go for several weeks or last for days or weeks.

How is HIV diagnosed?

Blood and saliva tests are used to diagnose HIV. These tests look for antibodies the body creates to fight the virus. Therefore, it is important to get tested as soon as you suspect exposure to HIV.

How is HIV treated?

Antiretroviral therapy, or ART, is recommended for anyone living with HIV. ART involves taking a daily combination of HIV medicines to reduce HIV levels in the body (i.e., viral load). While HIV medicines cannot cure the virus, they can help prevent it from advancing to AIDS. HIV medicines also help reduce the risk of transmission to others. People living with HIV with undetectable viral loads (i.e., no longer detected by blood tests) cannot transmit the virus to others.

How can HIV transmission be prevented?

ART for people living with HIV helps prevent transmission. For people at high risk for acquisition of HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is recommended. Other prevention steps include avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, using protection during sex (e.g., condoms, dental dams), avoid sharing or reusing needles, and seeking help with substance abuse and mental health issues.



UNAIDS infographics

View Infographics from the CDC

View Infographics from UNAIDS



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