The Basics

What is HIV? 

“HIV is a virus spread through certain body fluids that attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells, often called T cells. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. These special cells help the immune system fight off infections.

Untreated, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells (T cells) in the body. This damage to the immune system makes it harder and harder for the body to fight off infections and some other diseases. Opportunistic infections or cancers take advantage of a very weak immune system and signal that the person has AIDS.

When people get HIV and don’t receive treatment, they will typically progress through three stages of disease. Medicine to treat HIV, known as antiretroviral therapy (ART), helps people at all stages of the disease if taken the right way, every day. Treatment can slow or prevent progression from one stage to the next. It can also dramatically reduce the chance of transmitting HIV to someone else.

Stages of HIV

Stage 1: Acute HIV infection

Within 2 to 4 weeks after infection with HIV, people may experience a flu-like illness, which may last for a few weeks. This is the body’s natural response to infection. When people have acute HIV infection, they have a large amount of virus in their blood and are very contagious. But people with acute infection are often unaware that they’re infected because they may not feel sick right away or at all. To know whether someone has acute infection, either a fourth-generation antibody/antigen test or a nucleic acid (NAT) test is necessary. If you think you have been exposed to HIV through sex or drug use and you have flu-like symptoms, seek medical care and ask for a test to diagnose acute infection.

Stage 2: Clinical latency (HIV inactivity or dormancy)

This period is sometimes called asymptomatic HIV infection or chronic HIV infection. During this phase, HIV is still active but reproduces at very low levels. People may not have any symptoms or get sick during this time. For people who aren’t taking medicine to treat HIV, this period can last a decade or longer, but some may progress through this phase faster. People who are taking medicine to treat HIV (ART) the right way, every day may be in this stage for several decades. It’s important to remember that people can still transmit HIV to others during this phase, although people who are on ART and stay virally suppressed (having a very low level of virus in their blood) are much less likely to transmit HIV than those who are not virally suppressed. At the end of this phase, a person’s viral load starts to go up and the CD4 cell count begins to go down. As this happens, the person may begin to have symptoms as the virus levels increase in the body, and the person moves into Stage 3.

Stage 3: Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)

AIDS is the most severe phase of HIV infection. People with AIDS have such badly damaged immune systems that they get an increasing number of severe illnesses, called opportunistic illnesses.

Without treatment, people with AIDS typically survive about 3 years. Common symptoms of AIDS include chills, fever, sweats, swollen lymph glands, weakness, and weight loss. People are diagnosed with AIDS when their CD4 cell count drops below 200 cells/mm or if they develop certain opportunistic illnesses. People with AIDS can have a high viral load and be very infectious.” (CDC 2016)

Methods of Transmission

HIV can be transmitted by the following four bodily fluids

  • Semen
  • Vaginal Fluid
  • Blood
  • Maternal Milk

How to Know if I Have HIV? 

“The only way to know for sure whether you have HIV is to get tested. Knowing your status is important because it helps you make healthy decisions to prevent getting or transmitting HIV.

Some people may experience a flu-like illness within 2 to 4 weeks after infection (Stage 1 HIV infection). But some people may not feel sick during this stage. Flu-like symptoms include fever, chills, rash, night sweats, muscle aches, sore throat, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, or mouth ulcers. These symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. During this time, HIV infection may not show up on an HIV test, but people who have it are highly infectious and can spread the infection to others.

If you have these symptoms, that doesn’t mean you have HIV. Each of these symptoms can be caused by other illnesses. But if you have these symptoms after a potential exposure to HIV, see a health care provider and tell them about your risk.” (CDC 2016) The only way to determine whether you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection.

“To find places near you that offer confidential HIV testing,

Visit gettested.cdc.gov,

Text your ZIP code to KNOW IT (566948), or

Call 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636).

You can also use a home testing kit, available for purchase in most pharmacies and online.

After you get tested, it’s important to find out the result of your test so you can talk to your health care provider about treatment options if you’re HIV-positive or learn ways to prevent getting HIV if you’re HIV-negative.”

If you are located outside of the United States of America then contact the nearest health department in your area to inquire. Symptoms vary from person to person and the only sure way to know your HIV status is to get tested.

How Can I Prevent HIV? 

Many factors can decrease someone’s chance of getting or transmitting HIV. Abstinence is the best way to prevent getting HIV from a sex partner. For people who are sexually active, their are more tools available today to prevent HIV than ever before. These can include but are not limited to proper condom use, pre exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), post exposure prophylaxis (PeP), and treatment as prevention (TaSP). Additionally, men who are circumcised have a lower chance of getting HIV from having vaginal sex than men who are not circumcised.

Am I At Risk? 

Anyone who has engaged in sexual activity and or has ever had a blood transfusion could be at possible risk for being exposed to HIV. Certain activities are riskier than others. HIV cannot be spread by saliva, tears, urine, or sweat. Little evidence supports the idea that HIV can be transmitted via oral sex. If you are curious about learning of your risk the Center for Disease Control have a great risk measurement tool to help you determine your risk level. Remember that all it takes is once and any risk, regardless of how small, could result in an infection. It is my hope with this information you can make an educated decision if you decide to engage in sexual activities along with your partner to weigh out risk vs reward.

I’m HIV Positive, Now What? 

If you have just been diagnosed HIV positive then please click here