HIV Basics

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This means that HIV is a virus that attacks the body's immune system, decreasing the body's ability to fight germs. In a person whose immune system has been weakened by HIV, germs can cause life threatening infections and concerns. Currently, there is no cure for HIV, but medical treatment and healthy lifestyle changes can help you stay healthy and improve your quality of life.

HIV is a type of virus called a retrovirus, which infects people by coming into contact with tissues lining the vagina, anal area, mouth, or eyes, or through a break in the skin. HIV infection usually progresses slowly. The virus is present throughout the body at all stages of the disease.

Three stages of HIV infection are described below:

The initial or primary stage of the infection occurs within weeks of contracting the virus and can be characterized by a flu- or mono-like illness usually resolving itself in weeks. The stage of chronic, or asymptomatic infection (a long period of infection without symptoms) lasts 8 to 10 years on average. The stage of symptomatic infection, where the body's immune or defense system has been suppressed and complications have developed, is called the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Here the symptoms are caused by the complications of AIDS, and include one or more unusual infections or cancers, severe weight loss, and intellectual deterioration (dementia).

Who can get HIV?

Anyone can get HIV; men, women and children of any age, race or ethnic group, religion, economic background or sexual orientation. According to the CDC, today in the U.S. 1.2MM people are infected with HIV. 20% of those infected are unaware of their HIV status. Those undiagnosed 20% are responsible for up to 70% of the new infections each year in the United States.

You can protect yourself and, at the same time, help to stop the spread of HIV by using a condom correctly every time you have sex and by encouraging your sexual partners to do the same.

Everyone should test at least once. Anyone who engages in activities that put you at risk should test on a regular basis.

How can you get HIV?

You can get HIV through contact with these bodily fluids:

HIV is in blood, so anything you do that brings you in contact with another person's blood, like sharing needles or injection equipment, can transmit the virus. Newborns of HIV positive mothers can be infected from exposure to blood at time of birth. Because HIV is in semen and vaginal fluid, unless you use a condom correctly every time, you may be exposed to HIV during vaginal, oral and/or anal sex. HIV can also be passed from an infected mother to her child through her breast milk during breast feeding.

Signs and symptoms

You can't tell if someone has HIV just by looking at them. The only way to know for sure is to be tested for HIV. People who have it can feel, look and act just as healthy as people who don't.

Remember that 1 in 5 people who are HIV positive do not even know that they are infected because they have not been tested.

Early stages of HIV

As early as 2 to 4 weeks after exposure to HIV, but up to 3 months later, people can experience an acute illness, often described as "the worst flu ever." This is called acute retroviral syndrome (ARS), and it's the body's natural response to HIV infection.

Symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Rash
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Night sweats
  • Ulcers in the mouth
  • Muscle aches

Scientists don't know why only some HIV-infected people develop these symptoms, and they don't know whether or not having the symptoms is related in any way to the future course of HIV disease.

During the first weeks of infection when a patient may have symptoms of primary HIV infection, antibody testing may still be negative (the so-called window period).

Infected people will become symptom-free (asymptomatic) after this phase of primary infection.


AIDS stands for "acquired immunodeficiency syndrome." AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and is the most advanced stage of HIV infection. People with AIDS have weakened immune systems that make them vulnerable to selected conditions and infections.

You cannot rely on symptoms to know whether a person has AIDS. AIDS is a medical diagnosis made by a healthcare professional based on specific criteria set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).