Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV/AIDS)


What is Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)? What is AIDS?

HIV is a virus that destroys the body’s immune system and a person’s natural ability to fight infections and disease. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, is an advanced stage of HIV infection. There is no cure for HIV, but there are medications that can help prevent it from spreading and enable people with HIV live normal, healthy lives.

How Do You Get HIV?

You get HIV from having sex and exchanging blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluid, vaginal fluid or breast milk with someone who has the virus. People who receive anal sex have a high risk of contracting HIV. It’s possible, but much less common, for the person giving anal sex to contract the virus. People who use intravenous drugs and share needles with others are also at a high risk for contracting HIV. Depending on factors such as temperature, the virus can survive in a used needle for more than 40 days. HIV can also be transmitted through vaginal sex. While it is theoretically possible to transmit HIV through oral sex, it’s extremely rare.

How Do You Know if You Have HIV?

The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested regularly, because it can take up to 90 days after you’ve been infected for a test to detect the virus in your blood. If you have the virus and get treatment early, you can prevent the virus from damaging your immune system and causing more serious health problems.

Can You Treat or Cure HIV?

There is no vaccine or cure for HIV, but there are antiretroviral medications that can slow or stop the virus from doing further damage. They can also eliminate the risk that you transmit the virus to another person. Some people at high risk for contracting the disease take these medications to help prevent them from becoming infected.

Is HIV Dangerous?

Yes. Left untreated, a person with HIV will develop AIDS. Without treatment, a person with AIDS will most likely die within three years. People with AIDS can also transmit the disease through sexual contact more easily because they have a high concentration of the virus in their bodies.

Can You Prevent HIV?

The only way to prevent HIV is to abstain from having sex. Also at low risk for contracting HIV are people who have been tested for HIV and who are in a committed, monogamous relationship. When properly used, condoms can significantly reduce the risk of contracting HIV.

People at high risk for contracting the virus, such as men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users, can also take antiretroviral medication as a preventative measure. This is called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP.

How Do You Test for HIV?

You can test for HIV with a blood sample or, in some cases, with a saliva sample. There are different types of HIV tests. An antibody test detects the presence of proteins your body creates to fight HIV. An antigen test looks for antibodies and for an antigen called p24 that triggers your immune system to activate against HIV. Antigens are produced even before antibodies. A NAT test is a very sensitive and expensive test that looks for the virus in your blood.

Can You Get an Anonymous HIV Test?

It depends on where you live. In many states you can get an anonymous HIV test only (no other STDs). If you don’t get an anonymous HIV test and you test positive for the virus, the health department will automatically notify your spouse in some states. If you want to be sure that your test and results remain anonymous, you can follow our free guide to anonymous STD testing.

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