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HIV:
Fast Facts

  • HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
  • HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
  • HIV can be transmitted through the blood, sexual fluids, or breast milk of an HIV-infected person.
  • In the United States, nearly 1.1 million people are living with HIV, and almost one in five don’t know they are infected.
  • Getting tested is the first step to finding out if you have HIV.

How does someone get HIV?

HIV can be transmitted through the blood, sexual fluids (semen, preseminal fluid, or vaginal fluid) or breast milk of an HIV-infected person. People can get HIV one of these fluids enters the body by way of the mucous membranes (the soft, moist skin found in any opening of the body) or the bloodstream.

The virus can be passed during unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex with a HIV-infected person. An HIV-infected mother can transmit HIV to her infant during pregnancy, delivery or while breastfeeding. People can also become infected with HIV when using injection drugs through sharing needles and other equipment (or works) including cookers and cottons with someone who is infected.

The risk of transmission varies with the type of exposure (e.g. sexual, needle sharing, etc.) The CDC offers a table quantifying the this HIV transmission risk that comes from different types of exposures.

Can I get HIV from casual contact?

No. HIV is not transmitted by day-to-day contact in social settings, schools or in the workplace. You cannot be infected by shaking someone’s hand, by hugging someone, by using the same toilet or drinking from the same glass as an HIV-positive person, playing sports with or by being exposed to coughing or sneezing by anyone living with HIV. There is no evidence that HIV is spread through kissing. So you should not be fearful of interacting with persons who are living with the disease.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

Most people infected with HIV don’t know that they have become infected, because they do not feel ill immediately after infection. But some people do experience a illness with fever, rash, joint pains and enlarged lymph nodes. If an immune reaction to HIV occurs, it usually takes place between 1 and 6 weeks after HIV infection has happened.

A person with HIV may look healthy and feel good, but they can still pass the virus to others, especially during the initial infection period. You cannot tell if someone has HIV by just looking at them. The only way to determine whether HIV is present in a person’s body is by testing.

How does HIV become AIDS?

AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is a disease caused by HIV. HIV infects cells of the human immune system and destroys or impairs their function. Infection with this virus leads to slow destruction of a persons’ immune system making them more susceptible to many kinds of infections. Once a person with HIV develops any one of a number of rare infections or cancers—tuberculosis, pneumonia, candidiases or tumors—they are said to have AIDS.

How long does it take for HIV to cause AIDS?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prior to 1996, scientists estimated that about half the people with HIV would develop AIDS within 10 years after becoming infected. This time varied greatly from person to person and depended on many factors, including a person’s health status and their health-related behaviors.

Since 1996, the introduction of powerful anti-retroviral therapies has dramatically changed the progression time between HIV infection and the development of AIDS. There are also other medical treatments that can prevent or cure some of the illnesses associated with AIDS, though the treatments do not cure AIDS itself. Because of these advances in drug therapies and other medical treatments, estimates of how many people will develop AIDS and how soon are being recalculated, revised, or are currently under study.

How common are HIV and AIDS?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1.2 million persons in the United States are living with diagnosed or undiagnosed HIV/AIDS. In 2018, 37,968 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with HIV.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates that, since the beginning of the epidemic, almost 60 million people worldwide have been infected with HIV and 25 million people have died of HIV-related causes. UNAIDS estimates that about 33.4 million people worldwide were living with HIV in 2008.

How safe is the U.S. blood supply?

The U.S. blood supply is one of the safest in the world. Infection through blood transfusion and other blood products is rare. Since 1985, the blood supply has been ELISA tested for HIV. According to the CDC, an estimated 1 in 450,000 to 1 in 660,000 donations per year are infectious for HIV but are not detected by current antibody screening tests. In 1995, blood banks also began testing with P24 tests along with ELISA, to detect infection with HIV during this window period. As technology advances, the blood supply will become even safer.

How can I prevent HIV?

The first step to having safer sex is to understand and to be honest about the risks associated with sex. It is also helpful to talk with your partner about these risks and to think about ways to protect yourselves while enjoying a fun and passion filled experience.

Using condoms correctly every time one has sex is considered one way to have safer sex. It is also possible to use other barrier methods such as female condoms and dental dams during sexual activities. Lubricants may also be good to consider as they often prevent condom breakage resulting from friction.

Treatment can also reduce the risk of passing on HIV. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) drugs used to treat HIV infections reduce HIV’s viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood). Research shows there is little if any transmission risk (and perhaps no risk at all) from sex when someone with HIV is taking ART and their viral load is not detectable. (It isn’t known if someone with an undetectable HIV viral load is able to transmit the virus through sharing needles and injecting equipment, though.)

PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is another important way to prevent HIV. PrEP involves taking a pill once daily to prevent HIV infection in someone who is HIV-negative.

Treatment can also reduce transmission risk. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) drugs used to treat HIV infections reduce HIV’s viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood). Research shows there is little if any transmission risk (and perhaps no risk) from sex when someone with HIV is taking ART and their viral load is not detectable. (It isn’t known if someone with an undetectable HIV viral load is able to transmit the virus through sharing needles and injecting equipment, though.)

How can I reduce the risk from injecting drug use?

Sharing needles puts injecting drug users (IDUs) at risk for many blood-borne diseases, including hepatitis B and C, as well as HIV. The most effective way to reduce your risk is to stop using drugs. There are many programs available to help a person quit. If an individual cannot or will not stop using injecting drugs, then it is recommended that a person never reuse or share works (cookers, cottons, syringes, needles, water.) New needles, from a reliable source, should be used every time. Swabbing the sight with alcohol can help prevent other types of infections. Safely dispose of needles after using.

If new equipment is not available, syringes should be boiled in water or disinfected with bleach to reduce the risk of transmission. Call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at 1-800-CDC-INFO for more information on preventing transmission of HIV and other diseases through injecting drug use.

PrEP

PrEP involves taking a pill once daily to prevent HIV infection in someone who is HIV-negative.

HIV Testing

The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested.

Ask the Experts about HIV

See answers to common questions about HIV from our panel of experts

HIV and Pregnancy

Knowing your HIV status during pregnancy is key to protecting your baby from infection

Living with HIV

Life continues after becoming HIV positive. Thanks to new treatments, many people with HIV are living long, healthy lives.
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