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Fact Sheet: Basic Facts About HIV and AIDS

December 1, 2000

What Are HIV and AIDS?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that weakens the body's defense (immune) system until it can no longer fight off illnesses such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, cancerous tumors and others. HIV kills your CD4 cells (T cells), which direct your body's immune system to defend against infection.

You are considered to have AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) when your immune system is seriously damaged by HIV. In the U.S., an HIV-infected person receives a diagnosis of AIDS when his/her CD4 count is less than 200 or if diagnosed with a specific illness. (An average CD4 cell count in a healthy person is 1,150.)

Is there a Cure for HIV or AIDS?

There is still no cure or vaccine for HIV or AIDS. However, there are new drug treatments that can help many people with HIV stay healthy longer and can delay the onset of AIDS. As a result of these drugs, the number of HIV cases that develop into AIDS and the number of AIDS-related deaths have dropped dramatically in the U.S.. However, HIV infection rates remain unchanged. [See the Fact Sheet "Preventing HIV Infection"]

How Might I Become Infected with HIV?

HIV is transmitted from an HIV-positive person through infected body fluids, such as semen, pre-ejaculate fluid, blood, vaginal secretions or breast milk. HIV can also be transmitted through needles contaminated with HIV-infected blood, including needles used for injecting drugs, tattooing or body piercing. HIV is most often transmitted sexually. [See the Fact Sheet "Preventing HIV Infection"]


Can I Get HIV from Casual Contact with an Infected Person?

No. You do not get HIV from an HIV-infected person by working together, playing sports, shaking hands, hugging, closed-mouth kissing, sharing drinking glasses, eating utensils or towels, using the same wash water or toilet, swimming in the same pool, or coming in contact with their sneezes, coughs, tears or sweat. You also don't get HIV from bug bites or by donating blood. [See the Fact Sheet "Preventing HIV Infection"]

How Can I Protect Myself from HIV?

You are safest if you do not have sexual intercourse, oral sex or share needles or injection equipment. You are also safe if you are in a relationship in which both you and your partner are monogamous and have been free of HIV for 6 months. Whenever you are unsure about the risk of infection, always use a latex barrier when having sex of any kind -- vaginal, oral or anal.

What Is Unsafe Sex?

Unsafe sex -- vaginal, oral or anal -- is sex without the use of a condom or other protective latex barrier unless you are certain both partners have remained free of HIV for 6 months. [See the Fact Sheet "Preventing HIV Infection"]

What Is Safer Sex?

Safer sex is sexual activity without penetration or sex using protection, such as a latex condom or, in the case of oral sex, a latex barrier or plastic wrap. Other safer behaviors include intimate activities such as caressing, hugging, kissing, massaging, etc. [See the Fact Sheet "Preventing HIV Infection"]

What Are the Symptoms of HIV?

HIV affects each person differently. Because many people with HIV can look and feel healthy for years, you cannot rely on symptoms to know whether you are infected. The only way to know is to be tested.

Is HIV More Prevalent Among Certain Populations in the U.S.?

Research shows that, because of high-risk behaviors, HIV is prevalent among men who have sex with men, injection drug users, communities of color, and youth. Since the beginning of the epidemic, AIDS cases among blacks, Hispanics, and women have increased significantly. [See "AIDS in the United States"]

How Can I Get HIV from Injecting Drugs?

HIV can be transmitted through shared needles or equipment contaminated with HIV-infected blood. Anyone who injects drugs must either sterilize all equipment or use new, disposable needles and dispose of them carefully. [See the Fact Sheet "Considering the Risk"]

What if I Think I Might Have HIV?

If you think you may have been infected with HIV, you should go to a doctor or HIV/AIDS clinic for counseling and testing. Also, many organizations offer mobile testing for HIV. [See the Fact Sheet "HIV Counseling and Testing"]

Can I Keep My HIV Status Private?

Confidential testing (by name) is available in all states. Anonymous testing (no name) is available in many. Home test kits are available. [See the Fact Sheet "HIV Counseling and Testing"]

Why Should I Be Tested?

Knowing if you are HIV-positive will allow you to seek early treatment that could help you stay healthy longer. Whether you are HIV-negative or HIV-positive, you can learn how to prevent future infection with HIV or other STDs through the counseling at many testing centers. [See the Fact Sheet "HIV Counseling and Testing"]

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This article was provided by American Association for World Health. It is a part of the publication AIDS: All Men -- Make a Difference!.