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 by infecting and killing CD4 cells (also called T cells).

Having HIV does not always mean you have AIDS. It can take many years for people with the virus to develop AIDS. There is no cure for HIV or for AIDS. People with HIV are said to have AIDS when their T cells are very low and/or they develop certain infections or cancers.

How many people have HIV in the United States?

There are about 1.1 million people with HIV in the United States today, with new cases averaging about 38,000 per year. About 14% of the people with HIV, or one in 7 people, do not know that they have the virus. Anyone can get HIV, but certain things increase your risk.

How do people get HIV?

You can get HIV when body fluids from an infected person enter your bloodstream. Body fluids are blood, semen, vaginal fluids, fluids from the anus, and breast milk.

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.

You can have HIV and feel okay and still give the virus to others. Pregnant women with HIV can also give the virus to their babies.

The most common ways that people get HIV are having sex with an infected person and sharing a needle to take drugs.

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.
  • Donating blood.

Who can get HIV?

Anyone can get HIV if they are exposed to the virus. You 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.
  • Have another sexually transmitted infection (STI).

What behaviors are the most risky for getting or transmitting HIV?

Since there is a fairly high number of people who have HIV and don’t know it, you should be tested for HIV so you know your status. Being intoxicated is risky because you are more likely to engage in risky sex if you are drunk or high. In terms of sex acts, anal sex and vaginal intercourse are the most risky behaviors.

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. 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 the country.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

Some people get flu-like symptoms a month or two after they have been infected. This is called the acute stage. These symptoms often go away within a week to a month.

You can have HIV for many years before feeling ill. This is called clinical latency or the chronic stage.

AIDS is the most severe stage of HIV infection. In this stage, the immune system has been weakened by the HIV virus and is less able to fight off infections. Opportunistic infections are infections that could generally be fought off by a healthy immune system. In order to be diagnosed with AIDS, you have to have fewer than 200 CD4 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (200 cells/mm3), OR you must have developed what are called opportunistic infections (OIs) or certain cancers. You can develop AIDS even if your CD4 count is not 200 or lower.

What conditions are considered to be opportunistic?

Some of the most common of these OIs/cancers among HIV-positive people include:

Cancer: The types of cancers that are you are more likely to get if you have AIDs include lymphoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma, invasive cervical cancer, anal cancer, liver cancer, and cancers of the mouth, throat and lungs.

Candidiasis (thrush): This condition is caused by Candida fungus. It can happen in the skin, nails and mucous membranes throughout the body, such as the mouth or the vagina. The cases can be troublesome, but thrush is especially dangerous when it affects the esophagus or parts of the respiratory system (trachea, bronchi, lung tissue).

Pneumonia: This respiratory condition is most commonly caused by _Pneumocystis jirovecii and the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae._

Salmonella: This infection is spread through contaminated food and water. It causes diarrhea, vomiting and nausea.

Toxoplasmosis: This disease is caused by a parasites that live in cats and rodents and other warm-blooded animals. The infection is spread through the feces. Toxoplasmosis can cause severe problems in the lungs, heart, brain and other organs. If you have a cat, wear gloves to change the litter and be thorough in washing your hands.

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