What is HIV/AIDS?

The most basic terms to learn first are what HIV and AIDS stands for:

  • HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus
  • AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome

HIV is the virus that causes HIV infection (also simply referred to as “HIV”) and AIDS is the most advanced stage of the HIV infection.

We all have CD4 cells in our immune system that fight of infections. HIV attacks and destroys these infection-fighting CD4 cells making it difficult for the body to fight off infections and certain cancers. If left untreated, the HIV can progressively destroy the immune system and advance to AIDS.

How is HIV spread?

HIV transmission is the term given to the spread of HIV from one person to another. HIV can only spread from certain body fluids of a person who already has HIV and through contact with HIV-infected body fluids. These fluids are:

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

Studies have shown that unprotected anal or vaginal sex with HIV positive individuals (without the use of condoms), or HIV-prevention medication is the main cause for HIV transmission in the United States. Another contributory cause includes sharing injection drug equipment (works), such as needles, with someone who has HIV.

HIV can also spread from the mother to the child during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. This is known as mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Contrary to popular misconceptions you cannot get HIV through simple physical gestures like shaking hands or hugging a person who has HIV. Contact with objects such as dishes, toilet seats or doorknobs used by a person with HIV also cannot give you HIV. HIV is not spread through the air or in water or by mosquitoes, ticks or other blood-sucking insects.

How to reduce risk of getting HIV?

Reducing your risk or exposure of contracting the HIV infection is possible by engaging in safe sex, i.e. the correct use of condoms every time you have sex and limiting your number of sexual partners. Never share your injection drug equipment.

You can also have PrEP. PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis and is an HIV prevention option for people who don’t have HIV but who are at high risk of becoming infected with HIV. Speak to your healthcare provider about this. It involves taking specific HIV medicine every day.

Women with HIV are given medicines during pregnancy and childbirth to reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Their children are also given this medication after birth. It is also advisable for women in the United States to avoid breastfeeding their babies entirely because there is probability of HIV transmission through breast milk. The safer and healthier alternative is baby formula.

Is there treatment for HIV?

Yes, it is called antiretroviral therapy (ART).

The use of HIV medicines to treat HIV infection is called ART. People on ART take a combination of HIV medicines (called an HIV treatment regimen) every day.

Everyone who has HIV is recommended to take ART, this is because it prevents HIV from multiplying, which consequently reduces the HIV viral load in the body. This protects the immune system better and prevents HIV from advancing to AIDS. Although ART is not a cure for HIV, people with HIV who administer ART live longer and healthier lives.

ART also reduces the risk of HIV transmission. The main objective of ART is to make an HIV infected person’s viral load undetectable. This means that the HIV level in the blood is too low to be detected by a viral load test. Therefore people with HIV who maintain an undetectable viral load carry no risk of transmitting HIV to their partner through sex.

What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?

HIV also starts off with flu-like symptoms like fever, chills or rash, 2-4 weeks after contracting the HIV infection. These symptoms can last for a days or even several weeks. However, the virus multiplies rapidly in this early stage of HIV infection. After that it multiplies at very low levels and severe symptoms of HIV infection don’t appear for many years.

These severe symptoms such as 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.

The HIV infection takes about 10 years or more to advance to AIDS without any HIV medicines or treatment, although much faster in some.

It is imperative to understand that HIV transmission is possible at any stage of HIV infection—even if a person with HIV has no symptoms of HIV.

How is AIDS diagnosed?

When a person’s HIV advances to AIDS they may suffer from symptoms such as fever, weakness and weight loss.

However, a proper diagnosis of AIDS will be based on the following criteria:

  • A drop in CD4 count to less than 200 cells/mm3. A CD4 count measures the number of CD4 cells in a sample of blood.


  • The presence of certain opportunistic infections.

It is important to continue HIV medicines even if diagnosed with HIV because it helps people even at this stage in HIV infection.