- What Is HIV?
- What Is AIDS?
- How Do I Know If I Have HIV?
- Symptoms and stages of HIV infection
- Stage 1: Acute primary infection
- Stage 2: The asymptomatic stage
- Stage 3: Symptomatic HIV infection
- What is AIDS?
- HELP US HELP OTHERS
- Can You Get HIV From Having Sex With Someone Who Has AIDS?
- What is HIV?
- HIV is an infection that can lead to AIDS.
- What’s the difference between HIV and AIDS?
- How do you get HIV?
- 9 Myths About HIV/AIDS
- Myth #1: HIV is a death sentence.
- Myth #2: You can tell if someone has HIV/AIDS by looking at them.
- Myth #3: Straight people don’t have to worry about HIV infection.
- Myth #4: HIV-positive people can’t safely have children.
- Myth #5: HIV always leads to AIDS.
- Myth #6: With all of the modern treatments, HIV is no big deal.
- Myth #7: If I take PrEP, I don’t need to use a condom.
- Myth #8: Those who test negative for HIV can have unprotected sex.
- Myth #9: If both partners have HIV, there’s no reason for a condom.
- The Takeaway
- HIV timeline: What are the stages?
- Can You Keep HIV From Becoming AIDS?
- With Proper Treatment, HIV Doesn’t Have to Progress to AIDS
- Tips for Staying on Top of Your HIV Medications
- How to Stay Healthy While Living With HIV
- Comprehensive, up-to-date information on HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention from the University of California San Francisco
- How Do People Get AIDS?
What Is HIV?
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks cells that help the body fight infection, making a person more vulnerable to other infections and diseases. It is spread by contact with certain bodily fluids of a person with HIV, most commonly during unprotected sex (sex without a condom or HIV medicine to prevent or treat HIV), or through sharing injection drug equipment.
If left untreated, HIV can lead to the disease AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
The human body can’t get rid of HIV and no effective HIV cure exists. So, once you have HIV, you have it for life.
However, by taking HIV medicine (called antiretroviral therapy or ART), people with HIV can live long and healthy lives and prevent transmitting HIV to their sexual partners. In addition, there are effective methods to prevent getting HIV through sex or drug use, including pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).
First identified in 1981, HIV is the cause of one of humanity’s deadliest and most persistent epidemics.
What Is AIDS?
AIDS is the late stage of HIV infection that occurs when the body’s immune system is badly damaged because of the virus.
In the U.S., most people with HIV do not develop AIDS because taking HIV medicine every day as prescribed stops the progression of the disease.
A person with HIV is considered to have progressed to AIDS when:
- the number of their CD4 cells falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (200 cells/mm3). (In someone with a healthy immune system, CD4 counts are between 500 and 1,600 cells/mm3.) OR
- they develop one or more opportunistic infections regardless of their CD4 count.
Without HIV medicine, people with AIDS typically survive about 3 years. Once someone has a dangerous opportunistic illness, life expectancy without treatment falls to about 1 year. HIV medicine can still help people at this stage of HIV infection, and it can even be lifesaving. But people who start ART soon after they get HIV experience more benefits—that’s why HIV testing is so important.
How Do I Know If I Have HIV?
The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. Testing is relatively simple. You can ask your health care provider for an HIV test. Many medical clinics, substance abuse programs, community health centers, and hospitals offer them too. You can also buy a home testing kit at a pharmacy or online.
To find an HIV testing location near you, use the HIV Services Locator.
Symptoms and stages of HIV infection
- There are three stages of HIV infection. The symptoms vary in type and severity from person-to-person.
- Stage 1 after initial infection can feel like flu – not everyone will experience this.
- Stage 2 may last for 10 years or more.
- Stage 3 is when a person’s immune system is very badly damaged and can no longer fight off serious infections and illnesses.
- The earlier a person is diagnosed with HIV and starts treatment, the better their long-term health.
- Some people don’t get any symptoms during stages 1 and 2, but they can still pass on HIV. This is why HIV is often transmitted by people who don’t know they have the virus.
The symptoms of HIV at each stage can vary in type and severity from person-to-person and some people may not get any symptoms at all for many years. Without antiretroviral treatment, the virus replicates in the body and causes more and more damage to the immune system. This is why people need to start treatment as soon as possible after testing positive.
Stage 1: Acute primary infection
Around one to four weeks after getting HIV, some people will experience symptoms that can feel like flu. These may not last long (a week or two) and you may only get some of the flu symptoms – or none at all. Experiencing these symptoms alone is not a reliable way of diagnosing HIV.
You should always visit your healthcare professional if you’re worried about or think you’ve been at risk of getting HIV, even if you don’t feel unwell or have any of the following symptoms. They can then arrange for you to get tested.
Symptoms can include:
- fever (raised temperature)
- body rash
- sore throat
- swollen glands
- upset stomach
- joint aches and pains
- muscle pain.
These symptoms can happen because your body is reacting to the HIV virus. Cells that are infected with HIV are circulating throughout your blood system. Your immune system, in response, tries to attack the virus by producing HIV antibodies – this process is called seroconversion. Timing varies but once you have HIV it can take your body up to a few months to go through the seroconversion process.
It may be too early to get an accurate HIV test result at this point (find out more about ‘window periods’), but the levels of virus in your blood system are high at this stage.
Because you may not know that you (or your partner) have HIV, condoms are the best way to protect yourself and your partner when having sex. Using a condom is especially important if you think you have been exposed to HIV.
Stage 2: The asymptomatic stage
Once a person has been through the acute primary infection stage and seroconversion process, they can often start to feel better. In fact, HIV may not cause any other symptoms for up to 10 or even 15 years (depending on age, background and general health). However, the virus will still be active, infecting new cells and making copies of itself. HIV can still be passed on during this stage. If left untreated, over time, HIV infection will cause severe damage to the immune system.
Stage 3: Symptomatic HIV infection
By the third stage of HIV infection a person’s immune system is severely damaged. At this point, they’re more likely to get serious infections, or bacterial and fungal diseases that the body would otherwise be able to fight off. These infections are referred to as ‘opportunistic infections’.
Symptoms can include:
- weight loss
- chronic diarrhoea
- night sweats
- persistent cough
- mouth and skin problems
- regular infections
- serious illness or disease.
What is AIDS?
It’s important to understand the difference between HIV and AIDS. AIDS is a particular set of symptoms – it’s not a virus or disease in its own right.
If a person develops certain serious opportunistic infections or diseases – as a result of damage to their immune system from advanced stage 3 HIV infection – they are said to have AIDS. There isn’t a test for AIDS and you can’t inherit it.
If you have advanced HIV (with AIDS-defining symptoms), it’s important to get the right treatment as soon as possible. With treatment a person can recover from AIDS-related infections and diseases, and bring HIV under control.
The earlier you’re diagnosed with HIV, and start treatment, the better your long-term health.
HELP US HELP OTHERS
Avert.org is helping to prevent the spread of HIV and improve sexual health by giving people trusted, up-to date information.
We provide all this for FREE, but it takes time and money to keep Avert.org going.
Can you support us and protect our future?
Every contribution helps, no matter how small.
Photo credit: ©AVERT by Corrie Wingate
Can You Get HIV From Having Sex With Someone Who Has AIDS?
- Larger text sizeLarge text sizeRegular text size
If you have sex with someone who has AIDS, not HIV, can you still get HIV?
Yes. People who have AIDS are infected with the HIV virus. This means they can pass HIV on to others.
AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) happens after someone has had HIV for many years. In AIDS, the immune system is severely weakened. When someone gets HIV, that person can spread the infection to other people immediately. And if HIV develops into AIDS, the virus can spread to others.
HIV/AIDS spreads when infected blood or body fluids (such as semen or vaginal fluids) enter the body. This can happen:
- during sex (especially anal sex and vaginal sex)
- through sharing needles for injecting drugs or tattooing
- by getting stuck with a needle with an infected person’s blood on it
HIV/AIDS also can pass from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.
To reduce your risk of getting HIV/AIDS if you are sexually active:
- Use a condom every time you have sex (including vaginal, oral, or anal sex).
- Get tested for HIV and make sure all partners do too.
- Have fewer sexual partners.
- Get tested and treated for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases); having an STD increases the risk of HIV infection.
- Consider taking a medicine every day (called PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis) if you are at very high risk of getting infected (for example, if you are in a sexual relationship with someone who has HIV/AIDS).
It’s also important to:
- not inject drugs or share any kind of needle
- not share razors or other personal objects that may touch blood
- not touch anyone else’s blood from a cut or sore
*Names have been changed to protect user privacy.
Reviewed by: Robyn R. Miller, MD Date reviewed: October 2018
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.
X in a circle
Want to get tested for HIV?
Find a Health Center A right arrow in a circle
HIV is an infection that can lead to AIDS.
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.
About 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV, and more than 38,000 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 medicines can help you stay healthy. HIV medicine lowers or even stops your chances of spreading the virus to other people. Studies show that using HIV treatment as directed can lower the amount of HIV in your blood so much that it might not even show up on a test — when this happens, you can’t transmit HIV through sex.
Treatment is really important (that’s why getting tested is so important). Without treatment, HIV can lead to AIDS. But with medicine, people with HIV can live long, healthy lives and stop the spread of HIV to others.
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 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.
How do you get HIV?
HIV is carried in semen (cum), vaginal fluids, anal mucus, 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
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. If you do have HIV, treatment can lower or even stop the chances of spreading the virus to other people during sex. If you don’t have HIV, there’s also a daily medicine called PrEP that can protect you 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.
Was this page helpful?
Help us improve – how could this information be more helpful?
How did this information help you?
You’re the best! Thanks for your feedback. Thanks for your feedback.
9 Myths About HIV/AIDS
According to the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease, Control, and Prevention, around 36.7 million people are living with HIV around the world. While there have been many advancements in the management of the HIV virus throughout the years, unfortunately, a lot of misinformation still exists about what it means to live with HIV.
We reached out to several experts to get their opinions on what the most glaring misconceptions people in the United States have about HIV/AIDS. These experts treat people, educate medical students, and provide support to patients coping with the disease. Here are the top nine myths and misconceptions that they, and people living with the HIV virus or the AIDS syndrome, continue to combat:
Myth #1: HIV is a death sentence.
“With proper treatment, we now expect people with HIV to live a normal life span,” says Dr. Michael Horberg, national director of HIV/AIDS for Kaiser Permanente.
“Since 1996, with the advent of highly active, antiretroviral therapy, a person with HIV with good access to antiretroviral therapy (ART) can expect to live a normal life span, so long as they take their prescribed medications,” adds Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a board-certified infectious disease physician, and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. He also serves on the City of Pittsburgh’s HIV Commission and on the advisory group of AIDS Free Pittsburgh.
Myth #2: You can tell if someone has HIV/AIDS by looking at them.
If an individual contracts the HIV virus, the symptoms are largely unremarkable. A person with an HIV infection might display symptoms that are similar to any other type of infection, such as a fever, fatigue, or general malaise. Additionally, the initial mild symptoms generally only last a few weeks.
With the early introduction of antiretroviral medications, the HIV virus can be effectively managed. A person with HIV who receives antiretroviral treatment is relatively healthy and is no different than other individuals who have chronic health conditions.
The stereotypical symptoms that people often associate with HIV are actually symptoms of complications that can arise from AIDS-related illnesses or complications. However, with adequate antiretroviral treatment and medications, those symptoms will not be present in an individual living with HIV.
Myth #3: Straight people don’t have to worry about HIV infection.
It’s true that HIV is more prevalent in men who also have male sexual partners. Gay and bisexual young African-Americans have the highest rates of HIV transmission.
“We know that the highest risk group is men who have sex with men,” says Dr. Horberg. This group accounts for about 70 percent of new HIV cases in the USA, according to the CDC.
However, heterosexuals accounted for 24 percent of new HIV infections in 2016, and about two-thirds of those were women.
While the rates of African-American gay and bisexual men living with HIV has remained relatively the same in the United States, overall rates of new HIV cases have decreased since 2008 by 18 percent. Diagnoses among heterosexual individuals in general decreased by 36 percent, and decreased among all women by 16 percent.
African-Americans face a higher risk of HIV transmission than any other race, no matter their sexual orientation. According to the CDC, the rate of HIV diagnoses for black men is almost eight times higher than white men and even higher for black women; the rate is 16 times higher in black women than white women, and 5 times higher than Hispanic women. African-American women contract HIV at higher rates than any other race or ethnicity. As of 2015, 59% of women living with HIV in the United States were African-American, while 19% were Hispanic/Latina, and 17% were white.
Myth #4: HIV-positive people can’t safely have children.
The most important thing that a woman living with HIV can do when preparing for pregnancy is to work with her healthcare provider to begin ART treatment as soon as possible. Because treatment for HIV has advanced so much, if a woman takes her HIV medicine daily as recommended by a healthcare provider throughout her entire pregnancy (including labor and delivery), and continues medicine for her baby for 4 to 6 weeks after birth, the risk of transmitting HIV to the baby can be as low as 1% or less.
There are also ways for a mother who has HIV to lower the risk of transmission in the event that the HIV viral load is higher than desired, such as choosing a C-section or bottle feeding with formula after birth.
Women who are HIV negative but are looking to conceive with a male partner who carries the HIV virus may also be able to take special medication to help lower the risk of transmission to both them and their babies. For males who have HIV and are taking their ART medication, the risk of transmission is virtually zero if the viral load is undetectable.
Myth #5: HIV always leads to AIDS.
HIV is the infection that causes AIDS. But this doesn’t mean all HIV-positive individuals will develop AIDS. AIDS is a syndrome of immune system deficiency that is the result of HIV attacking the immune system over time and is associated with weakened immune response and opportunistic infections. AIDS is prevented by early treatment of HIV infection.
“With current therapies, levels of HIV infection can be controlled and kept low, maintaining a healthy immune system for a long time and therefore preventing opportunistic infections and a diagnosis of AIDS,” explains Dr. Richard Jimenez, professor of public health at Walden University.
Myth #6: With all of the modern treatments, HIV is no big deal.
Although there have been a lot of medical advancements in the treatment of HIV, the virus can still lead to complications, and the risk of death is still significant for certain groups of people.
The risk of acquiring HIV and how it affects a person varies based on age, gender, sexuality, lifestyle, and treatment. The CDC has a Risk Reduction Tool that can help a person estimate their individual risk and take steps to protect themselves.
Myth #7: If I take PrEP, I don’t need to use a condom.
PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a medication that can prevent HIV infection in advance, if taken daily.
According to Dr. Horberg, a 2015 study from Kaiser Permanente followed people using PrEP for two and a half years, and found that it was mostly effective at preventing HIV infections, again if taken daily. The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) currently recommends that all people at increased risk of HIV take PrEP.
However, it doesn’t protect against other sexually transmitted diseases or infections.
“PrEP is recommended to be used in combination with safer sex practices, as our study also showed that half of the patients participating were diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection after 12 months,” says Dr. Horberg.
Myth #8: Those who test negative for HIV can have unprotected sex.
If a person was recently diagnosed with HIV, it may not show up on an HIV test until up to three months later.
“Traditionally used antibody-only tests work by detecting the presence of antibodies in the body that develop when HIV infects the body,” explains Dr. Gerald Schochetman, senior director of infectious diseases with Abbott Diagnostics. Depending on the test, HIV positivity could be detected after a few weeks, or up to three months after possible exposure. Ask the person performing the test about this window period and the timing of repeat testing.
Individuals should take a second HIV test three months after their first, to confirm a negative reading. If they’re having regular sex, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation suggests getting tested every three months. It’s important for an individual to discuss their sexual history with their partner, and to talk with a healthcare provider about whether they and their partner are good candidates for PrEP.
Other tests, known as HIV combo tests, can detect the virus earlier.
Myth #9: If both partners have HIV, there’s no reason for a condom.
Studies have shown that a person living with HIV who is on regular antiretroviral therapy that reduces the virus to undetectable levels in the blood is NOT able to transmit HIV to a partner during sex. The current medical consensus is that “Undetectable = Untransmittable.”
However, the CDC recommends that even if both partners have HIV, they should use condoms during every sexual encounter. In some cases, it’s possible to transmit a different strain of HIV to a partner, or in some rare cases, transmit a form of HIV that is considered a “superinfection” from a strain that is resistant to current ART medications.
The risk of a superinfection from HIV is extremely rare; the CDC estimates that the risk is between 1 and 4 percent.
While there is unfortunately no cure for HIV/AIDS, people with HIV can live long, productive lives with early detection and adequate antiretroviral treatment.
“While the current antiretroviral therapies can be very effective for keeping HIV at low levels and preventing it from replicating and destroying the immune system for a long time, there is no cure for AIDS or a vaccine against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS,” explains Dr. Jimenez.
At the same time, the current thinking is that if a person can maintain viral suppression, then HIV will not progress and will thus not destroy the immune system. There are data that support a slightly shortened lifespan for people with viral suppression compared with people without HIV.
Though the number of new HIV cases has plateaued, according to the CDC, there are still an estimated 50,000 new cases each year in the United States alone.
Of concern, “new cases of HIV have actually increased among certain vulnerable populations including women of color, young men who have sex with men, and hard-to-reach populations,” according to Dr. Jimenez.
What does this mean? HIV and AIDS are still very much top public health concerns. Vulnerable populations should be reached out to for testing and treatment. Despite progress in testing and the availability of medications like PrEP, now is no time to let down one’s guard.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Over 1.2 million Americans have HIV.
- Every year, 50,000 more Americans are diagnosed with HIV.
- AIDS, which is caused by HIV, kills 14,000 Americans each year.
“The younger generation has lost some fear of HIV because of the success of treatment. This has caused them to engage in risky behaviors, leading to high rates of infection in young men who have sex with other men.”
– Dr. Amesh Adalja
HIV timeline: What are the stages?
There are three stages to HIV infection.
Stage 1: Acute HIV infection
Share on PinterestThe acute stage of HIV infection may involve flu-like symptoms within the first month of contracting the virus.
At stage 1, the bloodstream contains high levels of the virus. At this time, it can easily be passed to other people.
Within 2 to 4 weeks of exposure, many people develop flu-like symptoms. Not everyone has these symptoms, however, and it is possible for HIV to progress without any indication that the virus is present in the body.
These flu-like symptoms represent the body’s natural response to an infection as it attempts to kill off the virus. However, the human body cannot completely remove this virus once it is present.
The virus replicates itself using the body’s own CD4 cells and spreads throughout the body. In the process, it destroys the CD4 cells.
Eventually, this process stabilizes. The immune system reduces the level of viral cells, while the CD4 cell count increases. However, CD4 cells may not return to their original level.
Symptoms at the acute stage
At stage 1, symptoms may include:
- muscle and joint aches and pains
- raised temperature
- ulcers in the mouth
- night sweats
- body rash
- sore throat
- swollen glands
It is important to seek medical help if these symptoms occur, especially if the individual believes they may have been exposed to the HIV virus. Early treatment can be effective in reducing the impact of HIV.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) can be taken on a regular basis to prevent HIV from taking hold, even if exposure occurs.
Stage 2: Clinical latency
During the second stage, the virus is active but reproduces at very low levels. At this stage, there are usually no symptoms, or very mild ones. This is why stage 2 is also known as the “asymptomatic stage.”
Those who follow a treatment program may remain in this stage for many decades, possibly for the rest of their life, as drug therapy reduces viral activity. Without treatment, the clinical latency stage lasts around 10 years.
Treatment can reduce the levels of the virus to such an extent that it is undetectable. This means that the body remains healthy, and the virus is untransmittable.
However, if viral levels are detectable, the virus can be passed on to another person at this stage, even if there are no symptoms. It is important to have regular monitoring to ensure the undetectable level is maintained.
Those living with HIV are encouraged to follow their treatment plan with care and attend all appointments.
Everyone — whether they have this virus or not — should take appropriate precautions to avoid or prevent transmission of HIV and other diseases.
Stage 3: AIDS
Stage 3 HIV is also known as AIDS, but AIDS is a different and separate diagnosis from HIV. HIV is a virus, but AIDS is a syndrome, with a range of features and symptoms.
In people who are undergoing drug therapy for HIV, their level of immunity remains strong enough to prevent the condition from progressing to AIDS. With current treatment options, AIDS is unlikely to develop.
Without treatment, however, the viral load can increase, and the CD4 cell count can drop. This reduced immunity leaves the body susceptible to various infections and diseases, which can be life-threatening.
An AIDS diagnosis is made when the CD4 cell count of someone with HIV drops to under 200. A healthy CD4 count is between 500 and 1,500 cells per millimeter cubed (cells/mm3).
Alternatively, the development of one or more opportunistic infections can also indicate the virus has progressed to AIDS.
Symptoms at stage 3
Symptoms at this stage vary greatly, as they tend to be associated with various opportunistic infections.
Some of the more common symptoms include:
- blotches under the skin or in the mouth and nose
- blurred vision
- diarrhea lasting longer than 1 week
- swollen lymph glands
- constant tiredness
- fever that keeps coming back
- memory loss
- weight loss
- mouth, anus, or genital sores
Conditions that commonly develop at this stage include tuberculosis (TB), fungal infections of the respiratory system, lymphoma, hepatitis, and some types of cancer.
Can You Keep HIV From Becoming AIDS?
Taking your HIV medication consistently is key to staying healthy. Getty Images
Sign up for more FREE Everyday Health newsletters.
Being diagnosed with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, isn’t as dire today as it was a decade or two ago. Thanks to the introduction of powerful medications called antiretroviral therapy, or ART, and advances in understanding the disease, it’s now possible for HIV-positive men and women to live long and healthy lives.
Delaying the final stage of HIV infection — called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS — is possible; for this to happen, however, you’ll have to stick to your medication regimen, communicate with your doctor, and make the right lifestyle and health choices.
With Proper Treatment, HIV Doesn’t Have to Progress to AIDS
In most cases, if you take ART, HIV does not progress to AIDS. HIV attacks the immune system’s CD4 cells. Over time, if these cells are destroyed, the immune system can no longer fight off infection. AIDS is diagnosed when a person gets certain infections (called opportunistic infections) or cancers, or their CD4 count is fewer than 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. Before ART medications were introduced, in the mid-1990s, people with HIV could develop AIDS in just a few years. But now that’s changed. Today, many HIV-positive people who get started on ART quickly, before the disease is advanced, can expect to live about as long as someone without HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But treatment is crucial. Without it, an HIV infection usually progresses to AIDS in a decade or so, although the figure varies, according to the CDC. And without treatment, AIDS typically leads to death in about three years.
By diligently taking ART, you can manage the illness by slowing the replication of the virus (when it makes copies of itself). This, in turn, can significantly delay the advancement to AIDS. But ART is not a cure for HIV or AIDS, and following the treatment regimen can’t entirely prevent the virus from replicating, weakening the immune system, and making you sick.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been HIV positive, or how healthy you are; doctors recommend ART to everyone, says the CDC. In most people, ART dramatically reduces the amount of HIV in the blood and other parts of the body, lowering what’s known as the viral load. Often the medicines can lower the viral load so much that HIV becomes undetectable by current technology. This is a very good thing that can help in many ways, including reducing the risk that sexual partners get infected with HIV, the CDC says.
For best results, take your HIV medicines exactly as prescribed: every single day for the rest of your life. If ART isn’t taken properly — for example, if you skip doses — the virus has a chance to multiply and may become resistant to the medication you’re taking, rendering the drugs ineffective and decreasing your options for treatment, according to the CDC.
RELATED: 4 Essential Facts About HIV Medications
Tips for Staying on Top of Your HIV Medications
Taking ART correctly and consistently is your best hope for preventing the progression to AIDS and preserving your health for many years. Use these tips to stay on track:
- Remind yourself. Whether you mark it off on a calendar, set an alarm or timer, or check it off your to-do list, creating a daily reminder can help you stay on track.
- Store your meds in a visible spot. Keep your medications in the same spot all the time. Choose somewhere where you’ll see them easily — for example, next to the kitchen or bathroom sink, or near your bed. Have a travel medicine container that’s filled with the dose for each day while you’re at work or away from home; you should also keep extra doses with you in case something unexpected comes up.
- Stay organized. That means staying on top of your prescriptions. You must never run out, because running out can have serious consequences. Make sure you have an ample supply on hand at all times, including extras in case there’s a holiday coming up when the pharmacy may be closed. Pay attention to weather forecasts, too: If severe weather is on the way, get your refills early. Insurance and pharmacy changes can be a barrier to care as well; make sure you know where to find your medications and how much they will cost.
There are many tips and strategies for staying on track with your medicines. The goal is to find a plan that works for you.
RELATED: 8 Tips to Help You Stick to Your HIV Treatment
How to Stay Healthy While Living With HIV
Work closely with your doctor and adhere to your medication regimen to delay the progression to AIDS. It’s also important that you maintain a healthy lifestyle and practice safer sex. If you’re HIV positive, here’s what you can do to keep your viral load as low as possible:
- Spare your body from stress. Stress can weaken your immune system and make you more vulnerable to illness and infection. Combat stress by getting plenty of sleep each night and try stress-relieving practices like meditation or yoga.
- Get vaccinated. Infections like pneumonia and the flu can be devastating if you’re HIV positive. Get regular vaccinations for these and any other infections that your doctor recommends.
- Practice safer sex. Safer sex is always important, even if you have HIV. The goal should be not only to prevent the spread of the virus to others but to protect yourself from other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like hepatitis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. Marilyn Henderson, BSN, RN, the science department director at the Medical Institute for Sexual Health in Austin, Texas, adds that you should be sure to start treatment for any existing STI right away once you’re diagnosed with HIV.
- Take care of your body. That means quit smoking, get regular exercise, avoid alcohol and recreational drugs, and stick to a healthy diet. All these lifestyle changes will help your body grow stronger and healthier.
Making a commitment to staying healthy can protect you against AIDS — even if you’re already HIV positive.
RELATED: 10 Ways to Stay Healthy if You Have HIV
Comprehensive, up-to-date information on HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention from the University of California San Francisco
Since there is currently no way to get rid of HIV from the body once someone is infected, most people with HIV will probably still have the virus when they die.
Whether HIV/AIDS will be what causes someone’s death, however, is not always clear. People with HIV are still vulnerable to all the other things that can kill someone, of course–other infections, cancer, accidents–so it is possible to have HIV and die of something else. That is probably not a cheerful thought, but just a reality check! HIV is often thought of as an incurable, fatal illness, and it certainly can be without treatment–especially once a person’s immune system is weakened to the point that he or she has AIDS. Without treatment, it takes an average of 10 years for someone who gets HIV to develop AIDS. Some people get AIDS much more quickly, while others do not get it until much later.
HIV treatment does not cure HIV, and people with HIV still may experience complications related to HIV treatment and HIV infection. However, the current outlook for people with HIV has improved tremendously and HIV-infected people with access to medicines and medical care can live long, healthy lives. A person diagnosed at age 25 who receives good medical care is estimated to live 40 more years.
If you want to find out more about what is being done to make treatment more affordable and accessable, check out HIV InSite’s Access to Medications Links page.
Updated November 2017
What is HIV?
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infects cells of the immune system, destroying or impairing their function. Infection with the virus results in progressive deterioration of the immune system, leading to “immune deficiency.” The immune system is considered deficient when it can no longer fulfil its role of fighting infection and disease. Infections associated with severe immunodeficiency are known as “opportunistic infections”, because they take advantage of a weakened immune system.
What is AIDS?
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a term which applies to the most advanced stages of HIV infection. It is defined by the occurrence of any of more than 20 opportunistic infections or HIV-related cancers.
How is HIV transmitted?
HIV can be transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse (vaginal or anal), and oral sex with an infected person; transfusion of contaminated blood; and the sharing of contaminated needles, syringes, surgical equipment or other sharp instruments. It may also be transmitted between a mother and her infant during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.
How many people are living with HIV?
According to estimates by WHO and UNAIDS, 36.7 million people were living with HIV globally at the end of 2016. That same year, some 1.8 million people became newly infected, and 1 million died of HIV-related causes.
How quickly does a person infected with HIV develop AIDS?
The length of time can vary widely between individuals. Left without treatment, the majority of people infected with HIV will develop signs of HIV-related illness within 5–10 years, although this can be shorter. The time between acquiring HIV and an AIDS diagnosis is usually between 10–15 years, but sometimes longer. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) can slow the disease progression by preventing the virus replicating and therefore decreasing the amount of virus in an infected person’s blood (known as the ‘viral load’).
What is the most common life-threatening opportunistic infection affecting people living with HIV?
Tuberculosis (TB) killed 400 000 people living with HIV in 2016. It is the number one cause of death among people with HIV in Africa, and a leading cause of death in this population worldwide. There are a number of core health care strategies that are critical to prevent and manage TB infection among people living with HIV:
- routine-TB symptom screening at each healthcare visit
- management of latent TB infection (e.g. with isoniazid preventive treatment)
- TB infection control
- early initiation of antiretroviral therapy.
How can I limit my risk of HIV transmission through sex?
- Use male or female condoms correctly each time you have sex.
- Take antiretroviral drugs for pre-exposure prophylaxis of HIV (PrEP).
- Practice only non-penetrative sex.
- Remain faithful in a relationship with an uninfected equally faithful partner with no other risk behaviour.
Does male circumcision prevent HIV transmission?
Male circumcision reduces the risk of female-to-male sexual transmission of HIV by around 60%.
A one-time intervention, medical male circumcision provides life-long partial protection against HIV as well as other sexually transmitted infections. It should always be considered as part of a comprehensive HIV prevention package and should never replace other known methods of prevention, such as female and male condoms.
How effective are condoms in preventing HIV?
When used properly during every sexual intercourse, condoms are a proven means of preventing HIV infection in women and men. However, apart from abstinence, no protective method is 100% effective.
What is a female condom?
The female condom is the only female-controlled contraceptive barrier method currently on the market. The female condom is a strong, soft, transparent polyurethane sheath inserted in the vagina before sexual intercourse. It entirely lines the vagina and provides protection against both pregnancy and STIs, including HIV, when used correctly in each act of intercourse.
What is the benefit of an HIV test?
Knowing your HIV status can have 2 important benefits.
- If you learn that you are HIV positive, you can take steps before symptoms appear to access treatment, care and support, thereby potentially prolonging your life and preventing health complications for many years.
- If you know that you are infected, you can take precautions to prevent the spread of HIV to others.
What are antiretroviral drugs?
Antiretroviral drugs are used in the treatment and prevention of HIV infection. They fight HIV by stopping or interfering with the reproduction of the virus in the body, reducing the amount of virus in the body.
What is the current status of antiretroviral therapy (ART)?
By mid-2017, 20.9 million people were receiving HIV antiretroviral therapy (ART) globally. While this number illustrates a formidable success in HIV treatment scale up, nearly half of all people in need are still waiting for treatment.
Is there a cure for HIV?
No, there is no cure for HIV. But with good and continued adherence to ART, the progression of HIV in the body can be slowed to a near halt. Increasingly, people living with HIV can remain well and productive for extended periods of time, even in low-income countries. WHO now recommends treatment for all people living with HIV.
What other kinds of care do people living with HIV need?
In addition to ART, people with HIV often need counselling and psychosocial support. Access to good nutrition, safe water and basic hygiene can also help an HIV-infected person maintain a high quality of life.
- World AIDS Day 2016
- Feature stories on HIV/AIDS
- Fact sheet on HIV/AIDS
- WHO programme on HIV/AIDS
How Do People Get AIDS?
- Larger text sizeLarge text sizeRegular text size
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a
that attacks the immune system. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) happens after someone has had HIV for many years. In AIDS, the immune system is severely weakened. People with AIDS get serious infections and health problems.
How Does HIV Spread?
HIV spreads when infected blood, semen (“cum”) or vaginal fluids enter the body. Because symptoms can be mild at first, people with HIV might not know they’re infected. They can spread HIV to others without knowing it.
HIV can spread:
- during sex (especially anal sex and vaginal sex)
- through sharing needles for injecting drugs or tattooing
- by getting stuck with a needle with an infected person’s blood on it
HIV also can pass from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.
HIV does not spread through:
- pee, poop, spit, throw-up, or sweat (as long as no blood is present)
- coughing or sneezing
- holding hands
- sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses
How Can I Protect Myself?
The best way to protect yourself from HIV is to not have sex (vaginal, oral, or anal) and not share needles.
If you decide to have sex, reduce your risk of getting HIV by:
- using a condom every time you have sex (including vaginal, oral, or anal sex)
- getting tested for HIV and making sure all partners do too
- reducing the number of sexual partners you have
- getting tested and treated for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases); having an STD increases the risk of HIV infection
Understanding how HIV spreads can help you make safer choices about sex. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions about HIV and if you want to get tested.
Reviewed by: Robyn R. Miller, MD Date reviewed: October 2018