We’ve all heard of AIDS, but few of us know much about it. Understanding HIV and AIDS can help you be more supportive of people who have it and reduce your chances for becoming infected. Learn the basics about HIV/AIDS to raise your awareness about this infection.


What is HIV/AIDS?

HIV is an abbreviation for human immunodeficiency virus; the term “HIV” can refer to either the virus itself or the HIV infection it causes. AIDS is an abbreviation for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome and is the last stage of HIV infection.

HIV attacks important cells in your immune system, called CD4 or T cells, that fight infections. As HIV destroys CD4 cells, it becomes harder for your body to fight off infections. Eventually, HIV can destroy the immune system and progress to AIDS if not treated.


The Spread of HIV

Transmission of HIV occurs through contact with certain body fluids of someone infected with HIV. These fluids include:

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Vaginal fluid
  • Anal fluid
  • Breast milk

The most common form of HIV transmission in the United States is sharing drug injection equipment with or having sex with someone infected with HIV. Mothers with HIV can also pass the virus on to their child during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, but proper treatment greatly reduces this risk.


Prevention of HIV

Reduce your risk of becoming infected with HIV by practicing the following safe behaviors:

  • Correctly use condoms every time you have sex
  • Limit the number of sexual partners
  • Never share equipment for injecting drugs


Stages of HIV

There are three stages of HIV infection: acute HIV infection, clinical latency and AIDS. The infection gets worse as it progresses, eventually overwhelming your immune system without proper treatment. Progression through the stages occurs at different rates depending on a number of factors, including:

  • Genetic makeup
  • Level of health before infection
  • Amount of exposure to the virus
  • Genetic characteristics of the virus
  • How quickly treatment begins
  • Proper use of HIV medications
  • Health-related choices such as exercise, a healthy diet and not smoking


Stage 1: Acute HIV Infection

Two to four weeks after getting infected with HIV, people may develop severe flu-like symptoms. This is the acute HIV infection stage, which is also sometimes called “primary HIV infection” or “acute retroviral syndrome.” The symptoms can include:

  • Swollen glands
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Sore throat
  • Joint and muscle aches and pains
  • Headache

Large amounts of HIV are being produced during this stage, so the number of CD4 cells drops rapidly. The immune response eventually brings the level of HIV down to a relatively stable level called the viral set point. Once the virus level drops, CD4 levels begin to rise, but usually don’t return to pre-infection levels. Due to the high levels of HIV, people in this stage are at a higher risk for transmitting the virus.


Stage 2: Clinical Latency

After the initial acute stage, HIV moves into the clinical latency stage, sometimes called “chronic HIV infection” or “asymptomatic HIV infection.” The term “latency” is used because the virus lives and reproduces at low levels within the infected individual without producing symptoms. Even though people are free of symptoms during the clinical latency stage, it’s still possible to transmit HIV to others; treatment helps reduce this risk.

Without treatment, the clinical latency stage usually lasts around 10 years, although people may progress through it faster or slower depending on a number of factors. When the viral load begins to rise again and CD4 levels fall, you eventually progress to the third and final stage of HIV infection.


Stage 3: AIDS

In the final stage of HIV infection, the immune system is badly damaged and the body becomes vulnerable to opportunistic infections. You have progressed to AIDS when at least one of the following occurs:

  • The level of CD4 cells falls to less than 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood
  • You develop one or more opportunistic infections

People with AIDS usually survive about three years without treatment. Starting treatment after you have AIDS is helpful, but it’s more beneficial to begin treatment during one of the earlier stages. Most people with HIV in the United States rarely progress to AIDS thanks to effective treatment that controls the disease progression.


HIV Treatment

There is currently no cure for HIV, but people with HIV can live healthier, longer lives with proper treatment. Using HIV medicines to treat HIV is called antiretroviral therapy or ART. It includes a combination of HIV medicines taken every day. ART prevents the multiplication of HIV and lowers the amount of HIV in the body. Lower levels of HIV helps protect the immune system and keeps HIV infection from advancing to AIDS. Proper treatment also reduces the risk of transmitting HIV to others.


Testing for HIV

The only way to determine whether or not you have HIV is to get tested. It’s important to know if you are infected because you can take steps to reduce the likelihood of transmitting HIV to others and start treatment. Early treatment is the best way to control the progression of HIV. If you notice flu-like symptoms after suspected exposure to HIV, then see a health care provider immediately. Because HIV infection can be difficult to detect with testing during the initial stage, it’s important to tell your healthcare provider that you think you’re at risk.

HIV/AIDS is a serious infection that attacks the immune system. However, with proper treatment, people infected with HIV can often live as long as someone without the infection.