HIV is a virus spread through certain body fluids that attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells, often called T cells. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. These special cells help the immune system fight off infections. Untreated, virus reduces the number of CD4 cells (T cells) in the body. This damage to the immune system makes it harder and harder for the body to fight off infections and some other diseases. Opportunistic infections or cancers take advantage of a very weak immune system and signal that the person has AIDS.
What Is HIV?
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system. The immune system becomes weaker, making it harder for the body to fight off infections and some kinds of cancers.
Most people who are diagnosed early and take medicines for HIV can live long, healthy lives.
HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids that include:
- vaginal and rectal fluids
- breast milk
The virus doesn’t spread in air or water, or through casual contact
What Is AIDS?
AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) happens after someone has had HIV for many years. In AIDS, the immune system is severely weakened. Serious infections and health problems happen.
Medicines can help prevent virus from developing into AIDS.
If AIDS does develop, it means that the immune system is severely compromised. It’s weakened to the point where it can no longer fight off most diseases and infections. That makes the person vulnerable to a wide range of illnesses, including:
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- oral thrush, a fungal infection in the mouth or throat
- cytomegalovirus (CMV), a type of herpes virus
- cryptococcal meningitis, a fungal infection in the brain
- toxoplasmosis, a brain infection caused by a parasite
- cryptosporidiosis, an infection caused by an intestinal parasite
- cancer, including Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) and lymphoma
How Do People Get HIV?
HIV spreads when infected blood or body fluids (such as semen or vaginal fluids) enter the body. This can happen:
- during sex (especially anal sex and vaginal sex)
- through sharing needles for injecting drugs or tattooing
- by getting stuck with a needle with an infected person’s blood on it
- HIV also can pass from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.
HIV is NOT spread through:
- pee, poop, spit, throw-up, or sweat (as long as no blood is present)
- coughing or sneezing
- holding hands
- sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of HIV and AIDS?
When first infected with HIV, a person may have:
- swollen glands
- painful ulcers in the mouth or around the anus or penis
- a headache
- muscle and joint pain
These symptoms go away in a few weeks. In the first few years after infection, someone with HIV may have mild symptoms, like swollen glands.
Because the symptoms of HIV can be mild at first, some people might not know they’re infected. They can spread HIV to others without even knowing it.
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After a few years, other symptoms start, including:
- weight loss
- increased number of infections
- infections that are more severe than is typical
Without treatment, HIV can lead to a very weakened immune system and progress to AIDS. Illnesses that happen in AIDS are called “AIDS-defining conditions.”
AIDS-defining conditions include:
- very fast and severe weight loss (called wasting syndrome)
- a lung infection called pneumocystis pneumonia
- Kaposi sarcoma (a type of skin cancer)
- lymphoma (cancer in immune system cells)
HIV and AIDS: What’s the connection?
To develop AIDS, a person has to have contracted HIV. But having HIV doesn’t necessarily mean that someone will develop AIDS.
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Cases of HIV progress through three stages:
stage 1: acute stage, the first few weeks after transmission
stage 2: clinical latency, or chronic stage
stage 3: AIDS
As HIV lowers the CD4 cell count, the immune system weakens. A typical adult’s CD4 count is 500 to 1,500 per cubic millimetre. A person with a count below 200 is considered to have AIDS.
How quickly a case of HIV progresses through the chronic stage varies significantly from person to person. Without treatment, it can last up to a decade before advancing to AIDS. With treatment, it can last indefinitely.
There is no cure for HIV, but it can be controlled. People with HIV often have a near-normal lifespan with early treatment with antiretroviral therapy. Along those same lines, there’s technically no cure for AIDS. However, treatment can increase a person’s CD4 count to the point where they’re considered to no longer have AIDS. (This point is a count of 200 or higher.) Also, treatment can typically help manage opportunistic infections.
HIV and AIDS are related, but they’re not the same thing.
What Causes HIV and AIDS?
Virus destroys CD4 cells (also called T cells). CD4 cells are part of the immune system. They fight germs and help prevent some kinds of cancers.
How is HIV Diagnosed?
Health care providers usually diagnose HIV through blood tests. Someone who is infected said to be “HIV positive.”
Tests also are available without a prescription at the drugstore. You can do the test at home.
How is AIDS Diagnosed?
HIV is diagnosed as AIDS when someone:
has fewer than 200 CD4 cells
develops an AIDS-defining condition
How are HIV and AIDS Treated?
Medicines can help people with HIV stay healthy. They can also prevent HIV from progressing to AIDS.
Health care providers prescribe a combination of different medicines for people with HIV and AIDS. They must be taken exactly as prescribed or they won’t work. These medicines:
- help keep the number of CD4 cells high
- reduce the viral load of HIV (how much HIV is in the body)
Regular blood tests will check the number of CD4 cells in the body (called the CD4 cell count) and the viral load.
If an HIV-positive person’s CD4 count gets low, doctors prescribe daily antibiotics. This prevents pneumocystis pneumonia, which happens in people with weakened immune systems.
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Can HIV Be Prevented?
To reduce the risk of getting infection, people who are sexually active should:
- use a condom every time they have sex (including vaginal, oral, or anal sex)
- get tested for HIV and make sure all partners do too
- reduce their number of sexual partners
- get tested and treated for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases); having an STD increases the risk of HIV infection
- consider taking a medicine every day (called PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis) if they are at very high risk of getting infected (for example, if they are in a sexual relationship with someone with HIV)
- Do not inject drugs or share any kind of needle.
- Do not share razors or other personal objects that may touch blood.
- Do not touch anyone else’s blood from a cut or sore.