What is HIV?
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). AIDS is the late stage of HIV infection that occurs when the body’s immune system is badly damaged because of the virus. Without HIV medicine, people with AIDS typically survive about 3 years. Once someone has a dangerous, opportunistic illness, life expectancy without treatment falls to about 1 year.
The human body can’t get rid of HIV and no effective HIV cure exists. So, once you have HIV, you have it for life.
But with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled. People with HIV who get effective HIV treatment can live long, healthy lives and protect their partners.
Symptoms of HIV
The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. You can’t rely on symptoms to tell whether you have HIV.
Knowing your HIV status gives you powerful information so you can take steps to keep yourself and your partner healthy.
If you test positive, you can take medicine to treat HIV. By taking HIV medicine daily as prescribed, you can make the amount of HIV in your blood (the viral load) very low—so low that a test can’t detect it (called an undetectable viral load). Getting and keeping an undetectable viral load is the best thing you can do to stay healthy. If your viral load stays undetectable, you have very low risk of transmitting HIV to an HIV-negative partner through intercourse.
If you test negative, there are more HIV prevention tools available today than ever before.
If you are pregnant, you should be tested for HIV so that you can begin treatment if you’re HIV-positive. If an HIV-positive woman is treated for HIV early in her pregnancy, the risk of transmitting HIV to her baby can be very low.
Within 2 to 4 weeks after infection with HIV, about two-thirds of people will have a flu-like illness. This is the body’s natural response to HIV infection.
Some symptoms can include:
Swollen lymph nodes
These symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. But some people do not have any symptoms at all during this early stage of HIV.
In this stage, the virus still multiplies, but at very low levels. People in this stage may not feel sick or have any symptoms. This stage is also called chronic HIV infection.
Without HIV treatment, people can stay in this stage for 10 or 15 years, but some move through this stage faster.
If you take HIV medicine every day as prescribed, and achieve an undetectable viral load test, you can protect your health and reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to your partner(s).
If your viral load is detectable, you can transmit HIV during this stage, even when you have no symptoms.
It’s important to see your health care provider regularly to get your viral load checked.
If you have HIV and you are not on HIV treatment, eventually the virus will weaken your body’s immune system and you will progress to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). This is the late stage of HIV infection.
Symptoms of AIDS can include:
Rapid weight loss
Recurring fever or profuse night sweats
Extreme and unexplained tiredness
Prolonged swelling of the lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck
Diarrhea that lasts for more than a week
Sores of the mouth, anus, or genitals
Red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
Memory loss, depression, and other neurologic disorders
Each of these symptoms can also be related to other illnesses. The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. If you are HIV-positive, a health care provider will diagnose if your HIV has progressed to stage 3 (AIDS) based on certain medical criteria.
Many of the severe symptoms and illnesses of HIV disease come from the opportunistic infections that occur because your body’s immune system has been damaged. See your health care provider if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.
How Transmission of HIV Occurs
You can only get HIV by coming into direct contact with certain body fluids from a person with HIV who has a detectable viral load. These fluids are:
Semen and pre-seminal fluid
For transmission to occur, the HIV in these fluids must get into the bloodstream of an HIV-negative person through a mucous membrane (found in the rectum, vagina, mouth, or tip of the penis); open cuts or sores; or by direct injection.
People with HIV who take HIV medicine daily as prescribed, and get and keep an undetectable viral load have effectively no risk of transmitting HIV to others.
HIV can only be spread through specific activities. In the United States, the most common ways are:
Having vaginal or anal intercourse with someone who has HIV without using a condom or not taking medicines to prevent or treat HIV.
Sharing injection drug equipment, such as needles, with someone who has HIV.