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What We Can Do: Basic Facts about HIV/AIDS

December 1, 1999

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 infects and kills your CD4 cells (T cells), which direct your body's immune system to defend against infection.

You are considered to have AIDS when your immune system is seriously damaged by HIV. If you have HIV and your CD4 count is less than 200, a doctor will tell you that you have AIDS. (An average CD4 cell count in a healthy immune system is 1,150.)

Is there a cure for HIV or AIDS?

No, there is still no cure or vaccine for either HIV or AIDS. There are, however, new drug treatments that can help people with HIV stay healthy longer and can delay the onset of AIDS. As a result, the number of HIV cases that develop into AIDS and the number of AIDS-related deaths have dropped dramatically in the US. [See Treatment Options]

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 Prevention]

How can I protect myself from HIV infection?

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 free of HIV and if neither of you has had other sex partners. 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 is unprotected sex -- vaginal, oral or anal -- unless you are certain both partners have remained free of HIV for 6 months. [See Prevention]

What is safer sex?

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

What are the symptoms of HIV?

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 US?

Research shows that HIV is prevalent among members of communities of color, men who have sex with men, injection drug users and youth. Young people under the age of 25 accounted for about half of all new HIV infections in the US. [See HIV in Specific Populations]

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 injection equipment or use new, disposable needles and dispose of them carefully. [See HIV in Specific Populations]

Can I get HIV from casual contact with an infected person?

No. You do not get HIV from an HIV-infected person by playing sports, working together, shaking hands, hugging, closed-mouth kissing, breathing the same air, 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.

What should I do if I think I might have HIV?

If you think you may have been infected with HIV, you should be tested at a doctor's office, health department or HIV/AIDS clinic. Also, many organizations offer mobile testing for HIV. [See Common Questions about Testing & Counseling and Treatment Options]

Can I keep my HIV status private?

Confidential testing (by name) is available in all states. Anonymous testing (no name) is available in many states. Home test kits can also be purchased. [See Common Questions about Testing & Counseling]

Why should I get tested?

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

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This article was provided by American Association for World Health. It is a part of the publication Be a Force for Change.