HIV/AIDS at a Glance
- HIV is the infection that causes AIDS.
- HIV has few or no symptoms for up to 10 years or more before symptoms of AIDS develop.
- There is no cure for HIV/AIDS, but treatment is available.
- HIV can be spread during sex play.
- Latex and female condoms offer very good protection against HIV.
We all want to protect ourselves and each other from infections like HIV. Learning more about HIV/AIDS is an important first step.
Here are some of the most common questions we hear people ask about HIV/AIDS. We hope you find the answers helpful, whether you think you may have HIV/AIDS, have been diagnosed with it, know someone who has it, or are just curious about it.
What Is HIV/AIDS?
You may have heard about HIV and AIDS, but many people don't know the basic facts about them.
HIV causes AIDS. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It breaks down the immune system — our body's protection against disease. HIV causes people to become sick with infections that normally wouldn't affect them.
AIDS is short for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is the most advanced stage of HIV disease.
In the United States, more than 980,000 cases of AIDS have been reported to the government. About 40,000 women and men in the United States get HIV each year.
What Are the Symptoms of HIV?
Some people develop HIV symptoms shortly after being infected. But it usually takes more than 10 years.
There are several stages of HIV disease. The first HIV symptoms may include swollen glands in the throat, armpit, or groin. Other early HIV symptoms include slight fever, headaches, fatigue, and muscle aches. These symptoms may last for only a few weeks. Then there are usually no HIV symptoms for many years. That is why it can be hard to know if you have HIV.
What Are the Symptoms of AIDS?
AIDS symptoms appear in the most advanced stage of HIV disease. In addition to a badly damaged immune system, a person with AIDS may also have
- thrush — a thick, whitish coating of the tongue or mouth that is caused by a yeast infection and sometimes accompanied by a sore throat
- severe or recurring vaginal yeast infections
- chronic pelvic inflammatory disease
- severe and frequent infections
- periods of extreme and unexplained tiredness that may be combined with headaches, lightheadedness, and/or dizziness
- quick loss of more than 10 pounds of weight that is not due to increased physical exercise or dieting
- bruising more easily than normal
- long periods of frequent diarrhea
- frequent fevers and/or night sweats
- swelling or hardening of glands located in the throat, armpit, or groin
- periods of persistent, deep, dry coughing
- increasing shortness of breath
- the appearance of discolored or purplish growths on the skin or inside the mouth
- unexplained bleeding from growths on the skin, from the mouth, nose, anus, or vagina, or from any opening in the body
- frequent or unusual skin rashes
- severe numbness or pain in the hands or feet, the loss of muscle control and reflex, paralysis, or loss of muscular strength
- confusion, personality change, or decreased mental abilities
How Can I Know If I Have HIV?
You cannot know for sure if you have HIV until you get tested. About 1 out of 6 people with HIV don't know they are infected, so testing is very important. Read more about HIV testing.
Is There a Cure for HIV/AIDS?
There is currently no cure for HIV/AIDS. But there are treatments for people living with HIV/AIDS.
If you have HIV/AIDS, you can take combinations of medicines called "cocktails." The drug cocktails are designed to strengthen the immune system to keep HIV from developing into AIDS or to relieve AIDS symptoms. These drugs are often very expensive, may have serious and very uncomfortable side effects, and may not be available to everyone. They only work for some people and may only work for limited periods of time.
But thanks to "cocktails" for the immune system and improved therapies for the symptoms of AIDS, people are now able to live with HIV/AIDS for many years. New treatments and research may help people live even longer.
How Is HIV Spread?
People have lots of questions about the ways you can get HIV. HIV is transmitted in blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. The most common ways HIV is spread are by
- having vaginal or anal intercourse without a condom with someone who has HIV/AIDS
- sharing needles or syringes with someone who has HIV/AIDS
- being deeply punctured with a needle or surgical instrument contaminated with HIV
- getting HIV-infected blood, semen, or vaginal secretions into open wounds or sores
Babies born to women with HIV/AIDS can get HIV from their mothers during birth or from breastfeeding.
HIV is not transmitted by simple casual contact such as kissing, sharing drinking glasses, or hugging.
Getting and Giving Blood
Some people are concerned about the risk of HIV when getting or giving blood. Hospitals, blood banks, and health care providers in the United States are extremely careful. Syringes and needles are only used once. And blood is always tested before it's banked. So, today, there is practically no risk of getting or spreading HIV by giving or receiving blood.
How Can I Prevent Getting or Spreading HIV?
There are many ways you can protect yourself from HIV. The surest way is to abstain from sexual intercourse and from sharing needles and "works" if you use steroids, hormones, or other drugs.
Many people have been infected with HIV by sharing needles. If you are using needles for steroids, hormones, or other drugs
- Never share needles.
- Get into a needle-exchange program.
- Be sure to disinfect the needles you use.
Don't share personal items that may have blood on them. This includes toothbrushes, razors, needles for piercing or tattooing, and blades for cutting or scarring.
If you choose to have sex, have safer sex to reduce the risk of exchanging blood, semen, or vaginal fluids with your sex partner(s).
Safer Sex and HIV
Some kinds of sex play are "safer" because they have lower risk of infection than others. "Safer-sex" activities are those we choose to lower our risk of exchanging blood, semen, or vaginal fluids — the body fluids most likely to spread HIV. Each of us must decide what risks we will take for sexual pleasure.
Here are some common sexual behaviors grouped according to risk.
VERY LOW RISK — No reported HIV infections due to these behaviors
- fantasy, cyber sex, or phone sex
- using clean sex toys
- masturbation or mutual masturbation
- manual stimulation of one another
- touching or massage
- fondling or body rubbing
- oral sex on a man with a condom
- oral sex on a woman with a Glyde dam or plastic wrap
LOW RISK — Very few reported HIV infections due to these behaviors
- deep kissing that causes bleeding
- vaginal intercourse with a condom or female condom
- anal intercourse with a condom or female condom
- oral sex
(Try not to get semen, vaginal fluids, or blood into the mouth or on broken skin.)
HIGH RISK — Millions of reported HIV infections due to these behaviors
- vaginal intercourse without a condom
- anal intercourse without a condom
Talk with your health care provider about testing and treatment for STDs. Women and men with open sores from herpes and other infections get HIV more easily than other people.
Where Can I Get a Test for HIV?
Tests are available from Planned Parenthood health centers and most physicians, hospitals, and health clinics. Local, state, and federal health departments offer free testing. You can also buy an HIV home test kit.
Read more about HIV testing.
Should I be tested?
HIV tests are a normal part of health care. If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, talk with a health care provider about testing. Talking about what risks you've taken can help you decide whether testing is right for you.
What If I Have HIV/AIDS?
- Consult a health care provider who has experience treating HIV/AIDS.
- Inform sex partner(s) who may also be infected.
- Protect your sex partner(s) from HIV by following safer sex guidelines.
- Do not share needles or "works."
- Get psychological support with a therapist and/or join a support group for people with HIV/AIDS.
- Get information and social and legal support from an HIV/AIDS service organization.
- Don't share your HIV status with people who do not need to know. People with HIV may still face discrimination. Only tell people you can count on for support.
Maintain a strong immune system with regular medical checkups and a healthy lifestyle:
- Eat well.
- Get enough rest and exercise.
- Avoid illegal or recreational drugs, including alcohol and tobacco.
- Learn how to manage stress effectively.
Consider using medicines that may slow the progress of the infection.
What If I Have HIV/AIDS and I'm Pregnant?
If you have HIV and are pregnant, consult a health care provider who knows about HIV disease. Without treatment, about 25 out of 100 babies born to women with HIV are also infected. However, the use of HIV medicines, cesarean delivery, and refraining from breastfeeding can reduce the risk of transmission to less than 2 out of 100.
What's PrEP and how does it prevent HIV?
PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) is a way to help prevent HIV by taking a pill every day. It reduces your risk of getting infected. When PrEP is combined with condoms and other prevention methods it works even better. PrEP may not work if you skip doses. Even if used correctly, there's no guarantee that PrEP will work.
PrEP is only used for people who are at very high risk for HIV through sex or IV drug use. PrEP might be right for you if
- your partner is HIV-positive
- your partner is HIV-negative and either you or your partner has sex with someone whose HIV status isn't known
- you're a gay or bisexual man who has had anal sex without a condom or been told you have an STD in the past 6 months
- you're a heterosexual man or woman who doesn't use condoms every time you have sex with people who inject drugs or have bisexual male partners
- you have injected drugs in the past 6 months and have shared needles or been in drug treatment for IV drug use in the past 6 months.
Talk with your doctor or nurse about whether or not PrEP might be good for you. They can tell you more about how it works and what you can expect while taking it.
What's PEP and how does it prevent HIV?
PEP (Post Exposure Prophylasis) is a way to prevent HIV after being exposed to it. With PEP, you take anti-HIV medicines as soon as possible after you may have been exposed to HIV to try to reduce your chance of becoming HIV positive. This could happen because of a sexual assault, or having unprotected sex with someone who has HIV, or sharing needles with someone who has HIV.
One or more medicines are taken several times a day for at least 28 days. The medicines work by keeping HIV from spreading through your body. Even if taken correctly, there's no guarantee that taking PEP will work.
It should only be used rarely, right after a possible exposure. Your doctor or nurse will help decide if PEP is right for you, depending on what happened, when it happened, and what you know about the HIV status of the person whose blood or body fluids you were exposed to.
Where Can I Learn More About HIV/AIDS?
Call the toll-free CDC-INFO hotline for information about HIV/AIDS in English and Spanish:
For more information, visit
Find Dr. Cullins' Answers to Common Sexual Health Questions
Q&A with Dr. Cullins