What is HIV?

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. It damages your immune system, making it easier for you to get sick. HIV is spread during sex, but condoms can help protect you.

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HIV/AIDS is a serious infection

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It’s a virus that breaks down certain cells in your immune system (your body’s defense against diseases that helps you stay healthy). When HIV damages your immune system, it’s easier to get really sick and even die from infections that your body could normally fight off.

HIV can affect anybody — about 1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV, and more than 41,000 new infections happen every year. Most people with HIV don’t have any symptoms for many years and feel totally fine, so they might not even know they have it.

Once you have HIV, the virus stays in your body for life. There’s no cure for HIV, but medication can help you stay healthy longer and lower your chances of spreading the virus to other people. Treatment is really important (that’s why getting tested is so important). People who have HIV and don’t get treatment almost always die from the virus. But with medication, people with HIV can be healthy and live a long time.

What’s the difference between HIV and AIDS?

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. HIV and AIDS are not the same thing. And people with HIV do not always have AIDS.

HIV is the virus that’s passed from person to person. Over time, HIV destroys an important kind of the cell in your immune system (called CD4 cells or T cells) that helps protect you from infections. When you don’t have enough of these CD4 cells, your body can’t fight off infections the way it normally can.

AIDS is the disease caused by the damage that HIV does to your immune system. You have AIDS when you get rare, dangerous infections or have a super low number of CD4 cells. AIDS is the most serious stage of HIV, and it leads to death over time.

Without treatment, it usually takes about 10 years for someone with HIV to develop AIDS. Treatment slows down the damage the virus causes and can help people stay healthy for several decades before developing AIDS.

How do you get HIV/AIDS?

HIV is carried in semen (cum), vaginal fluids, blood, and breast milk. The virus gets in your body through cuts or sores in your skin, and through mucous membranes (like the inside of the vagina, rectum, and opening of the penis). You can get HIV from:

  • having vaginal or anal sex

  • sharing needles or syringes for shooting drugs, piercings, tattoos, etc.

  • getting stuck with a needle that has HIV-infected blood on it

  • getting HIV-infected blood, semen (cum), or vaginal fluids into open cuts or sores on your body

In the U.S., HIV is usually spread through having unprotected sex. Using condoms and/or dental dams every time you have sex and not sharing needles can help protect you and your partners from HIV.

HIV can also be passed to babies during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. A pregnant woman with HIV can take medicine to greatly reduce the chance that her baby will get HIV.

HIV isn’t spread through saliva (spit), so you CAN’T get HIV from kissing, sharing food or drinks, or using the same fork or spoon. HIV is also not spread through hugging, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing. And you can’t get HIV from a toilet seat.

A long time ago, some people got HIV from infected blood transfusions. But now, giving or getting blood in medical centers is totally safe. Doctors, hospitals, and blood donation centers don’t use needles more than once, and donated blood is tested for HIV and other infections.