What Is HIV?

Welcome to TheBody! Whether you're new to HIV or already an expert, there is always more to know. In fact, there's so much to learn about HIV that it can seem overwhelming. But that's what we're here for. Use this page as a starting point for learning everything you need to know about HIV.

Let's start with the basics. HIV is short for "human immunodeficiency virus."

How Do You Get HIV?

A person can get HIV through condomless sex, or by sharing needles or other equipment used to inject drugs. However, if a person living with HIV is on treatment and it's working well, they can't transmit the virus -- levels of HIV will be too low inside their body for others to be at risk. There's also a pill HIV-negative people can take to protect themselves from potential exposure to HIV.

Who Gets HIV?

Anybody can get HIV. HIV is a virus; once it gets into your body, it can make you sick. It does so if you are rich or poor; 14 years old or 70; black or white; gay or straight; married or single. It's what you do, not who you are, that puts you at risk for HIV.

How Long Does It Take to Feel a Symptom of HIV?

People can have HIV for 10 years or more and never show any symptoms, even if they haven't started treatment. Other people can get symptoms within a short time after being infected. The only way you can tell if you have HIV is to get an HIV test.

How Long Will I Live With HIV?

If you keep your CD4 count up, keep your viral load down, take your HIV meds properly and live a healthy life, there's no reason to think that your life will be any shorter with HIV than it would have been without it. The latest information on life expectancy for HIVers shows that HIV-positive people who are on treatment can expect to live well into their 60s and beyond -- and the estimates keep getting closer to those of HIV-negative people as HIV meds become more and more effective.

What Should a Person Do After They Test Positive?

If you've already tested positive for HIV, then there are tests a doctor can do to see whether your HIV is progressing, and whether it's wise to start taking HIV medications.

For most people, if HIV treatment is not started when their doctor recommends it (i.e., when their CD4 count is low or their viral load is high), eventually their immune system will weaken to the point that they may develop life-threatening health problems.

If you're newly diagnosed, it can also be incredibly beneficial if you seek out support, get help from your local HIV organization and connect with other HIV-positive people. Visit our HIV/AIDS Resource Center for the Newly Diagnosed to read much more.

Where Did HIV Come From?

The origins of HIV are still a little murky. Experts currently think that, about 100 years ago in Africa, an ancestor of HIV evolved into a form that jumped from monkeys to humans. The history of the global HIV pandemic is more recent, however: The world only began to pay attention to HIV in the early 1980s, when gay men in New York City and San Francisco began to die of a mysterious illness. The term "AIDS" -- which is what doctors call it when HIV disease becomes advanced -- wasn't coined until 1982, and the virus now known as HIV wasn't identified as the cause of AIDS until 1984.

Learn More About HIV/AIDS Basics