HIV 101


What is HIV/AIDS?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, which is the virus that causes HIV infection. The abbreviation “HIV” can refer to the virus or to HIV infection.

AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV infection.

HIV attacks and destroys the infection-fighting CD4 cells of the immune system. The loss of CD4 cells makes it difficult for the body to fight infections and certain cancers. Without treatment, HIV can gradually destroy the immune system and advance to AIDS.

How is HIV spread?

HIV is spread through contact with certain body fluids from a person infected with HIV. These body fluids include:

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Pre-seminal fluid
  • Vaginal fluids
  • Rectal fluids
  • Breast milk

The spread of HIV from person to person is called HIV transmission. The spread of HIV from an HIV-infected woman to her child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding is called mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

In the United States, HIV is spread mainly by having sex with or sharing drug injection equipment with someone who is infected with HIV. To reduce your risk of HIV infection, use condoms correctly and consistently during sex, limit your number of sexual partners, and never share drug injection equipment.

Mother-to-child transmission is the most common way that children become infected with HIV. HIV medicines, given to HIV-infected women during pregnancy and childbirth and to their babies after birth, reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

You can’t get HIV by shaking hands or hugging a person infected with HIV. You also can’t get HIV from contact with objects such as dishes, toilet seats, or doorknobs used by a person with HIV. HIV does not spread through the air or through mosquito, tick, or other insect bites.

What is the treatment for HIV?

First, GET TESTED! Knowing your status is the first step. Working with your medical provider, you will develop a plan of care and treatment including diet, exercise and HIV medicines. The use of HIV medicines to treat HIV infection is called antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART involves taking a combination of HIV medicines (called an HIV regimen) every day. (HIV medicines are often called antiretrovirals or ARVs.)

ART prevents HIV from multiplying and reduces the amount of HIV in the body. Having less HIV in the body protects the immune system and prevents HIV infection from advancing to AIDS.

ART can’t cure HIV, but it can help people infected with HIV live longer, healthier lives. ART also reduces the risk of HIV transmission.

What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?

Soon after infection with HIV, some people have flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, or rash. The symptoms may come and go for a month or two after infection.

After this earliest stage of HIV infection, HIV continues to multiply, but at very low levels. More severe symptoms of HIV infection, such as chronic diarrhea, rapid weight loss, and signs of opportunistic infections, generally don’t appear for many years. (Opportunistic infections are infections and infection-related cancers that occur more frequently or are more severe in people with weakened immune systems than in people with healthy immune systems.)

Without treatment, HIV can advance to AIDS*. The time it takes for HIV to advance to AIDS varies, but it can take 10 years or more.

HIV transmission is possible at any stage of HIV infection—even if an HIV-infected person has no symptoms of HIV.

* The person’s immune system is severely damaged, as indicated by a CD4 count of less than 200 cells/mm3. (A CD4 count measures the number of CD4 cells in a sample of blood. The CD4 count of a healthy person ranges from 500 to 1,600 cells/mm3.)
AND/OR the person has one or more opportunistic infections.


There are lots of myths about how you can get HIV.

First, how is HIV passed on?

HIV is passed on from person to person IF infected body fluids (such as blood, semen, vaginal or anal secretions and breast milk) get into your bloodstream. The five main forms of exchange:

  • unprotected sex
  • from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding
  • injecting drugs with a needle that has infected blood in it
  • infected blood donations or organ transplants
  • a healthcare worker who gets the blood of an infected patient inside their body.

 You can only get HIV from someone who is already infected with HIV!

You cannot get HIV from…

  • Someone who doesn’t have HIV
  • Touching someone who has HIV
  • Sweat, tears, urine or feces of someone who has HIV (There is no HIV in an infected person’s sweat, tears, urine or feces.)
  • Mutual masturbation (Mutual masturbation, fingering and hand-jobs are all safe from HIV. However, if you use sex toys make sure you use a new condom on them when switching between partners.)
  • Insects (You cannot get HIV from insects. When an insect (such as a mosquito) bites you it sucks your blood – it does not inject the blood of the last person it bit.)
  • Air (HIV cannot survive in the air so coughing, sneezing or spitting cannot transmit HIV.)
  • New or sterilized needles (New needles cannot transmit HIV because they haven’t been in the body of an infected person. If used needles are cleaned and sterilized properly they can’t transmit HIV either.)
  • Water (HIV can’t survive in water, so you won’t get HIV from swimming pools, baths, shower areas or from drinking water.)
  • Toilet seats, tables, door handles, cutlery, sharing towels (HIV doesn’t survive on surfaces, so you can’t get HIV from any of these.)
  • Musical instruments (HIV can’t survive on musical instruments. Even if it is an instrument that you play using your mouth, it can’t give you HIV.)
  • Used condoms (HIV can only survive for a really short amount of time outside of the body. Even if the condom had sperm from an HIV-positive person in it, the HIV would be dead.)
  • Kissing (There is such a small amount of HIV in the saliva of an infected person that HIV can’t be passed on from kissing. There is only a risk if you both have large open sores or bleeding gums and blood is exchanged.)
  • Hugging or touching someone (HIV can’t survive outside of the body so you won’t get HIV from touching someone, hugging them or shaking their hand.)
  • Oral sex (As with kissing, the risk of HIV from oral sex is so small unless you or your partner have large open sores on the genital area or bleeding gums/sores in your mouth. Always use a condom or dental dam to eliminate the risk.)
  • Tattoos and piercings (There is only a risk if the needle used by the professional has been used in the body of an HIV-infected person and not sterilized afterwards.

It is important, however, to consider making routine HIV testing part of your regular health screenings because no one is immune. Contrary to myth, HIV does NOT target certain groups of people. Statistics provide us with a real time glimpse of where HIV is most prevalent; however, statistics shift over time based on a variety of factors. Lack of knowledge paired with certain behaviors that could introduce HIV into the bloodstream make everyone at risk. Furthermore, although some common symptoms have been observed, the symptoms of HIV can differ from person-to-person and some people may not get any symptoms at all. Without treatment, the virus will get worse over time and damage the immune system. There are three stages of HIV infection with different possible

Living Considerations for People Living with HIV

Cost of living is as much of a challenge for people living with HIV as it is for many of us; however, some factors compound costs for people living with HIV. Many do not have insurance coverage or find it financially challenging to secure insurance coverage. Such challenges are compounded by the persisting stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. Often, stigma results in social as well as employment issues and/or downright rejections. Consider the following:

  • Do you remember a time when you had to work even though you were sick?
  • Where you ever sick and unemployed?
  • Have you ever been unable to pay for or pick up your prescription?
  • Were you ever afraid that you could not pay your rent? Your power bill?
  • Did you ever not have enough money for gas in your car? Imagine, not being able to get to a doctor when you need to or for routine care.
  • Have you ever counted pennies for food?
  • What if you lived in a rural area with one doctor, or, worse, no doctor within 25 to 50 miles?

According to the CDC, The and other sources, routine medical treatment and monthly medications for someone living with HIV/AIDS can range from $2,000 to $5,000 per month, or $24,000 to $60,000 per year if no insurance coverage exists.

According to The, nearly 500,000 people living with HIV will require some form of housing assistance in their lifetime. Who would you turn to if you had HIV and were living on the street?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration using 2014 information, for a single male or female between the ages of 19 and 50, a low-cost grocery estimate can average $209.90 to $241.80 per month. How much do you spend on groceries each month?

Economic impact of HIV/AIDS

Analysts have observed that HIV and AIDS affects economic growth by reducing the availability of human capital. Without proper prevention, nutrition, health care and medicine we risk more infection, loss of lives and rising costs. Some answers can be found in early diagnosis, routine care, and managed assistance programs. If left unaddressed, increased medical care costs will rise and more of the population unable to work. Furthermore, by killing off young adults, HIV/AIDS weakens the taxable population, significantly reducing the resources available for public expenditures such as education and health services NOT related to AIDS.

Additionally, households and organizations that must spend more on treating the severely sick, training (to replace sick workers), sick pay and caring for AIDS orphans spend less in other areas. This translates to a weakening economy and a lower GDP (Gross Domestic Product). These factors support the existence of government-supported assistance programs and private service providers. Think of the latter as a managed response to prevent a potentially global economic catastrophe.

Want to learn more? Consider these sources:


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)