HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that destroys the body's immune system. This makes it hard for the body to fight off illness. HIV can cause AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), a group of illnesses caused by a severely weakened immune system.
A person can be infected with HIV and not have any symptoms for many years. There are treatments available to prevent illness, as well as manage symptoms once they develop. It's important for all people who have HIV to get routine exams by their doctor to make sure treatment is working.
How are people infected with HIV?
There are several ways that HIV can be spread:
Through contact with semen or vaginal fluid during sex when one of the partners is already infected.
By sharing needles, syringes, and injected drugs used by an infected person. This also includes accidental needle sticks.
From an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy, birth, and breast-feeding.
What are the symptoms of HIV?
You might not know right away. A person can be infected with HIV and not have any symptoms for many years. That's why getting tested for HIV is so important. Knowing your HIV status can help you prevent spreading the disease and take steps to protect your health so you can live as symptom-free as possible.
You should have an HIV test if you:
Have the flu or an illness that no one can diagnose, and you've engaged in high-risk behaviors (such as unprotected sex with a new partner or sharing needles or IV drugs).
Get pneumonia more than twice in a year
Have yeast in your mouth (thrush) or in your throat or esophagus
Are a woman who keeps getting vaginal yeast infections
Have abnormal Pap smears.
Have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) also called sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes simplex virus 2, or human papillomavirus (HPV).
Have been diagnosed with hepatitis B or C.
Find out that a past or present sex partner or needle-sharing partner is infected with HIV.
You should especially consider HIV testing if you've had unprotected sex or shared needles or IV drugs.
How can you reduce your risk?
Everyone can help prevent the spread of HIV. Some ways to reduce the risk of HIV are:
Be in a mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who doesn't have HIV.
Be in a mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has HIV and is taking their HIV medication.
Talk with potential partners about their sexual and drug history. Get to know each other's history before you agree to have sex so you can assess your risk.
Don't have unprotected anal or vaginal intercourse. Use barriers (such as latex condoms) every time you have sex.
Avoid situations where you're likely to make unsafe decisions about sex or drug use.
Don't use illegal drugs or share needles.
If you have risk factors for HIV, then taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) once a day can prevent HIV infection. Talk with your provider about whether you should take PrEP.
Is there a cure?
At this time, there isn't a cure or vaccine for HIV. There are medicines that can help you stay healthy and fight the virus. These medicines must be taken daily. Taking medicine controls HIV and is almost 100% effective at keeping an infected person from passing HIV to sex partners. HIV medicine can also reduce the risk of transmission of HIV if you share needles to use drugs. The medicines do not protect from getting other STIs or hepatitis.
Clinical review by Katherine Brown, MD, FACP, AAHIVS