What is HIV?

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus, or germ, that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The virus weakens a person's ability to fight infections and cancer. People with HIV are said to have AIDS when the virus makes them very sick and they develop certain infections or cancers.

Having HIV does not always mean you have AIDS. It can take many years for people with the virus to develop AIDS. HIV and AIDS cannot be cured. Although people with AIDS will one day die from an AIDS-related illness, there are ways to help people stay healthy longer.

How do people get HIV?

A person gets HIV when an infected person's body fluids (blood, semen, fluids from the vagina, or breast milk) enter his or her bloodstream. The virus can enter the blood through linings in the mouth, anus, or sex organs (the penis and vagina), or through broken skin.

Both men and women can spread HIV. A person with HIV can feel okay and still give the virus to others. Pregnant women with HIV can also give the virus to their babies.

Common ways people get HIV:

  • Sharing a needle to take drugs
  • Having sex with an infected person

You cannot get HIV from:

  • Touching or hugging someone who has HIV/AIDS
  • Public bathrooms or swimming pools
  • Sharing cups, utensils, or telephones with someone who has HIV/AIDS
  • Bug bites

Who can get HIV?

Anyone can get HIV if they engage in certain activities. You might have a higher risk of getting HIV if you:

  • Have sex with many partners (men or women)
  • Have unsafe sex with an infected person
  • Share needles to take drugs or steroids
  • Have unprotected sex for drugs or money

Are women more likely to get HIV?

Yes. Biologically speaking a woman is more vulnerable to heterosexual transmission of the disease because the genitalia are easily exposed to seminal fluids. Gender inequality has great influence on the spread of HIV/AIDS among women. For example in some cultures, many women and girls are often put in situations where they engage in non-consensual sex or have sex for money. In the U.S. minority communities have been hit the hardest by HIV. African American and Hispanic women together represent less than 25% of all U.S. women, yet they account for more than 78% of AIDS cases reported among women in our country.

How can I know if I have HIV?

The only way to know if you have HIV is to take an HIV test. Multiple national guidelines recommend routine voluntary HIV screening of all patients aged 18 to 75 years of age as a normal part of medical care. The reason for these recommendations is that nearly one out of five people infected with HIV are not aware that they have the infection.

To do the HIV test, a small sample of blood is taken from your arm. The blood is sent to a lab and tested for HIV. Home testing is available. The sample can be obtained via oral secretions (saliva), or a blood sample from a finger-stick test strip that is then mailed to a laboratory for screening. Positive results must be confirmed by your doctor before a diagnosis of HIV infection can be established.

Some clinics perform HIV tests without ever taking your name (anonymous testing). You must go back to the clinic to get your results. A positive test means you have HIV. A negative test means no signs of HIV were found in your blood.

Before taking an HIV test:

  • Ask the clinic what privacy rules it follows.
  • Ask your health care provider any questions you have about HIV, AIDS, or the HIV test.

Does HIV have any symptoms?

Some people get flu-like symptoms a month or two after they have been infected. These symptoms often go away within a week to a month. A person can have HIV for many years before feeling ill. Signs that HIV is turning into AIDS include:

  • A fever that won't go away
  • Sweating while you sleep
  • Feeling tired all the time (not from stress or lack of sleep)
  • Pneumonia
  • Losing weight
  • Swollen glands (neck, groin, or underarms)
  • White patches in the mouth (from an infection called oral thrush or candidiasis)

How can I keep from getting HIV?

The best way to protect yourself is to avoid activities that put you at risk. There's no way to tell by looking at someone if he or she has HIV. Always protect yourself.

  • Use latex condoms (rubbers) whenever you have any type of sex (vaginal, anal or oral).
  • Don't use condoms made from animal products.
  • Use water-based lubricants (lotion).
  • Never share needles to take drugs.
  • Avoid getting drunk or high. People who are drunk or high might be less likely to protect themselves.

It's important to use a condom correctly to protect yourself against HIV. Follow these tips:

  • Use a condom during any sex act that involves the penis.
  • Put the condom on after the penis is erect (hard).
  • Place the condom on the tip of the penis and roll it down.
  • Squeeze the tip of the condom as you roll it on to release any trapped air.
  • Leave a little room at the tip of the penis where semen can collect.
  • Leave the condom on until you are done with all sex acts.
  • Remove the condom while the penis is still erect (hard).
  • Always throw out used condoms.
  • Don't use condoms that are hard, broken, or look the wrong color.
  • If you use a lubricant (lotion), make sure that it is water-based. Do not use Vaseline®, petroleum jelly, or lubricants made with mineral or vegetable oil (oil can cause damage to the condom).


  • US Department of Health and Human Services. aidsinfo.nih.gov Accessed 5/4/2015.
  • AIDS.gov Accessed 5/4/2015.
  • Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. HIV/AIDS Accessed 5/4/2015.
  • Katz MH, Zolopa AR. HIV Infection & AIDS. In: Papadakis MA, McPhee SJ, Rabow MW. eds. Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment 2015. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2014. library.ccf.org Accessed May 04, 2015.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 4/14/2015...index#4251