What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. When HIV attacks the body, it destroys specific immune cells needed to fight off diseases and infections.

HIV resembles many other common illnesses, but there is a difference; the body is not able to get rid of HIV once it infects the immune system’s CD4+ or T-Cells.

HIV can replicate over time –killing the host cells– if not managed properly. HIV can lead to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), but testing positive for HIV does not mean you have AIDS.

It is possible to have HIV for many years, even decades, without developing or showing visible signs of the disease.

The only way to find out if you have HIV is to get tested. While there is currently no cure for the virus, there are medications that help HIV-positive individuals lead healthier lives.

According to the CDC, about 1.2 million Americans live with HIV and approximately 250,000 people are currently undiagnosed and unknowingly living with HIV.

Are HIV and AIDS the same?

No, HIV and AIDS are not the same. HIV can lead to the development of AIDS. AIDS is the late stage of HIV infection when an individual’s immune system is severely damaged and lacks the ability to fight off diseases and infections.

Many people with HIV benefit from powerful medications used to treat the viral infection. These medications are designed to slow down the destruction of the immune system, improve the health of those with HIV and reduce their ability to transmit the virus to others.

Can doctors cure HIV?

At the moment, there is neither a cure for HIV, nor a vaccine designed to prevent HIV infections. However, HIV is manageable and treatable, and people live long lives as a result of powerful antiretroviral medications.

These medications can slow down the virus and minimize its effects, especially if taken as directed by a doctor or HIV specialist.

Can anyone get HIV?

Anyone can contract HIV. Engaging in unprotected anal or vaginal intercourse, having multiple sexual partners, having an active STD, and intravenous drug use are considered high-risk activities for contracting HIV.

HIV can also spread from a mother to her baby during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.

Sharing needles, syringes, or other drug equipment can also put you at risk of contracting HIV. Despite misconceptions, saliva, tears, sweat, urine and fecal matter cannot transmit HIV.

Effects of untreated HIV

Undiagnosed and untreated HIV infections can potentially lead to death. If untreated, HIV can severely damage the immune system and make it nearly impossible for the body to fight other illnesses and infections, resulting in AIDS.

People with compromised immune systems as a result of AIDS are vulnerable to other so-called “opportunistic” diseases, including cancers and various infections.

The transition period from HIV to AIDS is different for each person, but when the immune system is compromised and worn down, it cannot fight off common infections and diseases.

Pregnant women who do not get tested for HIV and treated have an increased chance of transmitting the virus to their unborn children.

Ways to prevent HIV infection

The surest way avoid HIV infection is abstinence and to not use intravenous drugs. If you are not willing to abstain from sex, you can help prevent HIV by using condoms during sex.

Being in a monogamous relationship with someone who is not infected with HIV will also help prevent infection.

Talking about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and getting tested with a new partner before engaging in a sexual relationship is another way to help prevent contracting HIV.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

How long it takes HIV symptoms to appear differs from person to person. For some individuals, it may take several years or more before an HIV symptom presents itself.

For others, symptoms may appear soon after initial infection. Unfortunately, often times a person living without symptoms will spread HIV to others unknowingly.

The only sure way to know whether or not you have HIV is to take an HIV Test. For people who participate in high- risk activities, such as having unprotected sex or sharing drug needles, the CDC recommends getting tested at least once a year or before beginning a new sexual relationship.

How can I tell if someone has HIV?

There is no way to tell if someone has HIV rather than getting tested together and discussing the test results. Anyone can be infected with HIV.

In fact, the CDC estimates that approximately 250,000 American have HIV and are not aware of their infection yet. A person’s HIV status cannot be determined by their appearance, gender, age, race, sexual orientation or nationality.

What do HIV symptoms feel like?

Early symptoms of HIV may feel like (and may even be mistaken for) a long-lasting flu. These flu-like symptoms may occur 4-8 weeks after infection, and are known as HIV seroconversion or an acute HIV infection.

Some of the symptoms that result from HIV seroconversion syndrome include the following:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rash on the abdomen, arms, legs and face
  • Sore throat
  • Oral thrush (a fungal infection found in the mouth)

During the initial period of infection, the body’s immune system fights the HIV virus and as a result rids itself of flu-like symptoms.

A person’s ability to spread HIV is highest during this stage due to the high amount of the virus in the blood.

Effects of uncontrolled or untreated HIV

An uncontrolled or untreated HIV infection can lead to serious health complications, including AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).

As the HIV virus progresses over the course of months or years, the body’s immune system continues to deteriorate and weaken, ultimately leading to AIDS.

Once the disease moves into the clinical latency stage (also known as asymptomatic or chronic HIV infection), HIV reproduces at very low levels, but is still active.

As an individual’s viral load (amount of HIV in the blood) begins to rise and their CD4+ (white blood cell) count begins to fall, they are vulnerable to a series of infections and opportunistic illnesses.

This advanced stage of HIV is known as AIDS. The immune system is compromised by this point and is unable to protect the body from HIV-related symptoms or new infections or illnesses. These symptoms include:

  • Swollen lymph glands (in the neck and groin)
  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Repeated fevers and night sweats
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Body aches
  • Sore throat
  • Joint pain
  • Weight loss
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Mouth sores and ulcers
  • Gingivitis (gum disease)
  • For women: yeast infections (mouth and vagina) and PID (pelvic inflammatory disease)

Additional symptoms that result from an HIV-weakened immune system include repeated skin rashes or flaky skin, oral thrush, skin pox (sores or blisters), fungal infections on the skin or nails, and seborrheic dermatitis (oily coating, crust or scales on the skin).

What is HIV and how is it transmitted?

HIV is transmitted from person-to-person from contact with infected blood, semen and/or vaginal fluid.

Having unprotected sex vaginal or anal sex (or oral sex if you have a cut or open sore in your mouth) with an infected partner greatly increases the risk of contracting HIV.

HIV can also be transmitted via unsterile drug use, from using infected needles, syringes or drug equipment.

HIV and men

In 2014, the CDC reported that there were 44,073 new cases of HIV in the United States. Of those cases, 35,571 were diagnosed in men or adolescent males; a total of more than 80 percent of all new HIV cases are in men.

In the U.S., HIV is most prevalent in men who have sex with men, gay men and bisexual men, however it is also racially prevalent among black heterosexual men.

HIV symptoms in men

HIV symptoms will vary from case to case, but the following are the most common patterns HIV infections follow.

Upon infection, it may take individuals with HIV 2-4 weeks to exhibit symptoms. Often these symptoms are mistaken for a common cold or flu, rather than HIV.

Approximately 80 percent of individuals with an acute HIV infection will experience flu-like symptoms. That being said, sometimes it can take years for symptoms to appear.

This is why it is so important for you and your partner to always get tested before beginning a new sexual relationship.

Getting tested for HIV helps individuals seek needed treatment sooner and helps to stop the spread of the virus to others.

There are varying symptoms of HIV in men depending upon the stage of the disease they are in: Acute HIV stage (new infection stage); asymptomatic stage; and the latest, advanced stage known as AIDS.

Acute HIV symptoms in men

The most common HIV symptoms in men in this stage include:

  • Body rash
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Severe headaches

Less common HIV symptoms in men in this stage include:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Ulcers in the mouth
  • Ulcers on the genitals
  • Night sweats
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle aches and joint pain

During the acute HIV stage, symptoms most often last one to two weeks.

Asymptomatic stage of HIV in men

Upon the aforementioned symptoms disappearing is when the asymptomatic period of HIV begins. During this stage, an individual with HIV does not exhibit any signs or symptoms of infection.

HIV may not cause any more symptoms for months or years, but at this point the virus is still replicating and is starting to break down the body’s immune system by attacking important immune cells.

The virus is still active during this stage and can still be transmitted to others, which is why it is important to get tested for HIV even if you do not feel ill.

Advanced stage of HIV symptoms; AIDS

Without treatment, it may take a matter of months or years for HIV to weaken the immune system beyond repair.

This progression of HIV is referred to as AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. This last stage of infection means that the body’s immune system is severely damaged, leaving it more susceptible to other infections that it would otherwise be able to fight off if it were not compromised and damaged.

It is not uncommon for individuals with AIDS to frequently get colds, flus or fungal infections.

Symptoms men with AIDS may experience include:

  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Sores or ulcers in the mouth
  • Sores or ulcers on the genitals
  • Recurring fever
  • Recurring chills
  • Recurring night sweats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Persistent or prolonged swelling of the lymph nodes
  • Memory loss, confusion or neurological disorders

Getting tested for HIV is the only way to know for sure whether or not you have contracted HIV.

The CDC recommends getting tested at least annually, but it is important to get tested anytime you suspect you could have contracted HIV or have been involved in high-risk sexual activity or drug use.

HIV and women

According to the CDC, women made up 19 percent of the United States’ new HIV diagnoses in 2014.

Women predominantly contract HIV from a male partner during sex, in fact, 87 percent of these new cases were attributed to heterosexual sex, while the remaining 13 percent were attributed to intravenous drug use.

New HIV cases diagnosed in women are declining compared to new men’s HIV cases. New HIV cases in women have dropped 40 percent from 2005 to 2014.

Racially, new HIV cases in women are dropping among all races in the U.S., however a vast majority of new HIV diagnoses are still in African American women.

The CDC reports that in 2014 of all the new HIV cases:

  • 62 percent were African American (5,128 diagnoses)
  • 18 percent were white (1,483 diagnoses)
  • 16 percent were Hispanic (1,350 diagnoses)

Women and AIDS

Women make up a quarter of the estimated 20,792 AIDS diagnoses in 2014 and they represent one-fifth of the estimated 1,210,835 AIDS diagnoses in the U.S. since the start of the epidemic until 2014.

HIV symptoms in women

HIV symptoms will vary from case to case, but the following are the most common patterns HIV infections follow.

Upon infection, it may take individuals with HIV 2-4 weeks to exhibit symptoms. Often these symptoms are mistaken for a common cold or flu, rather than HIV.

Approximately 80 percent of individuals with an acute HIV infection will experience flu-like symptoms. That being said, sometimes it can take years for symptoms to appear.

This is why it is so important for you and your partner to always get tested before beginning a new sexual relationship.

Getting tested for HIV helps women seek needed treatment sooner and helps to stop the spread of the virus to others.

There are varying symptoms of HIV in women depending upon the stage of the disease they are in: Acute HIV stage (new infection stage); asymptomatic stage; and the latest, advanced stage known as AIDS.

HIV and pregnancy

HIV can also be transmitted from a mother to her child during childbirth (called perinatal HIV) or through breastfeeding.

By ensuring that all pregnant women are tested for HIV throughout their pregnancy, the transmission from mother-to-child can help be prevented through the use of antiretrovirals during pregnancy, a cesarean birth, and/or antiretroviral therapy for the child after birth.

Acute HIV symptoms in women

The most common HIV symptoms in women in this stage include:

  • Body rash
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Severe headaches

Less common HIV symptoms in women in this stage include:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Ulcers in the mouth
  • Vaginal infections, like yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis
  • Night sweats
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle aches and joint pain

During the acute HIV stage, symptoms most often last one to two weeks.

Asymptomatic stage of HIV in women

Upon the aforementioned symptoms disappearing is when the asymptomatic period of HIV begins. During this stage, an individual with HIV does not exhibit any signs or symptoms of infection.

HIV may not cause any more symptoms for months or years, but at this point the virus is still replicating and is starting to break down the body’s immune system by attacking important immune cells.

The virus is still active during this stage and can still be transmitted to others, which is why it is important to get tested for HIV even if you do not feel ill.

Advanced stage of HIV; AIDS symptoms

Without treatment, it may take a matter of months or years for HIV to weaken the immune system beyond repair.

This progression of HIV is referred to as AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. This last stage of of an HIV infection means that the body’s immune system is severely damaged, leaving it more susceptible to other infections that it would otherwise be able to fight off if it were not compromised and damaged.

It is not uncommon for individuals with AIDS to frequently get colds, flus or fungal infections.

Symptoms women with AIDS may experience include:

  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Sores or ulcers in the mouth
  • Vaginal infections, like yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
  • Recurring fever
  • Recurring chills
  • Recurring night sweats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Persistent or prolonged swelling of the lymph nodes
  • Memory loss, confusion or neurological disorders

What is AIDS?

Without treatment, it may take a matter of months or years for HIV to weaken the immune system beyond repair.

The progression of HIV to the late stage is referred to as AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.

This last stage of an HIV infection means that the body’s immune system is severely damaged, leaving it more susceptible to other infections that it would otherwise be able to fight off if it were not compromised and damaged.

As such, it is not uncommon for individuals with AIDS to frequently get colds, flus or fungal infections.

AIDS symptoms

Symptoms men and women with AIDS may experience include:

  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Sores or ulcers in the mouth
  • Recurring fever
  • Recurring chills
  • Recurring night sweats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Persistent or prolonged swelling of the lymph nodes
  • Memory loss, confusion or neurological disorders

Women may also experience the following as a result of AIDS:

  • Vaginal infections, like yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)

What causes an HIV rash?

A rash is a raised or flat inflamed area of skin that typically results in reddened, itchy and/or painful skin patches.

Rashes are a common occurrence for individuals with HIV. For HIV-positive people, a rash can be caused by many things, including–

  • A rash can be a symptom of an HIV infection
  • A rash can be a symptom of another infection or illness someone with HIV is trying to fight off
  • A rash can be a side effect of HIV medications
  • A rash may be a side effect of other medications being taken

Rashes as a sign of an acute HIV infection

Rashes are one of the most common symptoms of an acute (new) HIV infection, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The acute stage of an HIV infection is the most contagious stage because the amount of the virus is highest at this point of infection.

It is important to get tested for HIV if you suspect that a rash you have could be a sign of having contracted HIV.

The sooner you get tested for HIV, the sooner you can know your status and avoid potentially spreading the virus to others.

Rashes as a symptom of other infections

Many illnesses and infections can cause a rash. Since HIV attacks immune cells, the body of an individual with HIV is especially susceptible to contracting other diseases and infections since the immune system is already weakened from trying to fend off the HIV virus.

This helps to make it easy for other infections to wreak havoc on the body, many of which may have a rash as a symptom.

Rashes as a result of medications, including HIV medication

Rashes are a common side effect to many medications. According to the NIH, HIV medicines in all HIV drug classes can cause a rash.

Typically if a rash is occurring as a side effect of an HIV medication, your doctor may switch you to another medicine.

Most rashes related to HIV medications will resolve themselves over time (frequently after several days or weeks) and are not severe, however, in rare instances, a rash can be a sign of a serious, and sometimes life- threatening condition called Stevens-Johnson syndrome or SJS.

SJS is a rare but life-threatening hypersensitivity reaction reported with use of some HIV medicines. Those taking HIV medicines need to know about this condition as it can cause death.

Symptoms of SJS include fever; pain or itching of the skin; swelling of the tongue and face; blisters that develop on the skin and mucous membranes, especially around the mouth, nose, and eyes; and a rash that starts quickly and may spread.

A severe hypersensitivity reaction can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. SJS must be treated immediately, so seek medical attention immediately or call 911 if you think you are experience SJS.

HIV medications that have been associated with SJS or a hypersensitivity reaction include nevirapine (branded as: Viramune) and abacavir (branded as: Ziagen).

Is HIV transmitted through tattoos or body piercings?

Tattoos and body piercings involve the use of needles that can potentially put you at risk for HIV transmission, but no instances of this occurring have been documented.

Nonetheless, make sure that only new needles and other tattoo or body piercing supplies are used.

Ways HIV cannot be spread

You cannot get HIV through typical day-to-day contact or normal everyday activities because HIV does not live long outside the body.

Kissing, shaking hands and hugging are all casual contacts that do not involve potential HIV transmission of infected fluids (blood, semen, pre-seminal, rectal or vaginal fluids).

Objects like toilet seats, drinking fountains, door knobs, eating utensils, drinking glasses, food, cigarettes, pets, and insects (including mosquitoes) do NOT carry the HIV virus.

HIV is not spread through the air or saliva, so talking or casually interacting with someone with HIV does not put you at risk of contracting the virus.

Health effects of HIV

HIV negatively impacts your health by weakening and destroying certain immune cells. Although antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV is available, the virus makes individuals who have it vulnerable to other diseases and illnesses. These opportunistic infections include:

  • Fungal infections
  • Bacterial pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • Herpes
  • Hepatitis
  • Liver disease
  • Meningitis
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Other infections, cancers and complications

Failure to seek HIV treatment reduces and weakens the immune system defenders called CD4+ cells.

This causes the level of the HIV virus in your blood (viral load) to increase significantly, complicating your health.

How to reduce your risk of contracting HIV

The best method to reduce your risk of getting HIV is to abstain from sexual activity and be drug-free.

Safer sex practices include using a latex or polurethane condom consistently and properly when engaging in sexual activities like vaginal and anal sex.

Having sexual intercourse with an uninfected partner and staying in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship can also reduce your risk of contracting HIV.

Engaging in multiple sexual relationships increases your risk of encountering someone infected with HIV or other STDs.

Always know your HIV status and that of your partner and never share contaminated or already used needles or syringes.

Getting tested at least annually significantly increases your chances of diagnosing an HIV status, allowing you to get the necessary treatment if positive and help stop the spread of the virus.

If you are in a relationship with a partner who has HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is essential to helping you not contract the virus. Your partner needs to be adamantly following antiretroviral therapy (ART).

Who is at risk of contracting HIV?

Since the most common methods of HIV transmission are through anal or vaginal sex, and sharing drug injection equipment, people who engage in these activities are at risk of contracting HIV.

Also, substance abusers are at risk for contracting HIV because drugs and alcohol can reduce a person’s ability to reason, making them more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as unprotected sexual intercourse.

HIV does not discriminate, however studies have shown that social, economic and demographic factors affect the rate of HIV transmission in the U.S.

Those who live in communities with higher rates of HIV incidence have higher chances of encountering an HIV-positive partner, making them more vulnerable to contracting the virus.

According to a CDC report from 2012, homosexual, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) account for the majority of new HIV infections (62%), despite the fact that they make up less than 2% of the general population.

This population has a higher risk of contracting HIV due to the high prevalence of HIV transmission through semen and anal sex.

Do condoms protect against HIV?

Latex or polyurethane condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are proven to be highly effective in preventing the transmission of HIV.

Their use has been scientifically established through laboratory studies on uninfected persons involved in sexual relationships with HIV-positive partners.

Although studies have proven that consistent use of latex or polyurethane condoms provides a high degree of protection against HIV, they cannot guarantee absolute protection.

There is no cure for HIV, but it can be treated

While there is not a cure for HIV, it is treatable, especially when caught during the acute phase of the infection.

When researchers first discovered HIV, the retrovirus that causes AIDS, there were very few drugs available to treat the illness.

Due to modern medical advances, there are now more than 30 antiretroviral (ARV) drugs available to manage the disease and being diagnosed with HIV is no longer at all considered a death sentence.

Doctors use a combination of five classes of drugs known as antiretroviral medications to slow the advancement of HIV and allow those diagnosed with the disease to live longer, healthier lives. This method of treatment is referred to antiretroviral therapy or ART.

Importance of HIV treatment

HIV treatment involves taking a regimen of antiretroviral medications to slow the advancement of the illness and minimizes the damage to the body’s immune system.

Most people diagnosed with HIV start treatment immediately, allowing them to control the potential effects of the disease and extend their quality of life for as long as possible.

The sooner treatment is started, the sooner an HIV-positive individual can start to help lower their viral load.

Viral load is the amount of the virus in the blood and body fluids. ART, when taken consistently and correctly, can significantly reduce your chance of transmitting HIV to your partner.

Preventative treatment for HIV

A new preventative method called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PReP), is available for people who do not have HIV, but are at high risk for contracting the virus– whether due to their sexual activities or intravenous drug use.