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.

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)