HIV guide

What is HIV?

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight off infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are more than 56,000 new HIV infections in the United States every year...and about 1.1 million people are infected and living with the virus. Unfortunately, one in five of people with HIV have not been tested and diagnosed, and are therefore not receiving proper treatment to manage its damaging effects.

HIV is transmitted through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex when the blood, semen or vaginal secretions of an infected partner enter your body. Although rare, you can also get HIV from blood transfusions, or by sharing needles or syringes that are contaminated with infected blood. Additionally, infected mothers run the risk of transmitting HIV to their babies during pregnancy, delivery or while breastfeeding.

What's the connection between HIV and AIDS?

While HIV causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) – a chronic, often life-threatening condition – not everyone who is HIV-positive has AIDS. It's possible to have HIV for years and not develop or show any signs or symptoms of the disease.

While HIV is not curable, it can be treated and managed with highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). These multi-drug regimens slow down the potential of developing AIDS and other infections (including tuberculosis), certain cancers, weight loss, dementia and other health problems... even death.*

That said, being HIV-positive is not a death sentence. As HIV medications become more and more effective, people with HIV who are on treatment can expect to live a long time. The earlier HIV is diagnosed, the more successfully it can be managed to maintain a good quality of life for as long as possible...early detection is key.


Last reviewed by Lisa Oldson, MD, January 2011.

Lisa Oldson, MD

STD expert

"The first thing I tell a patient about STDs is that if you're worried about one STD, you should probably worry about all STDs. In other words, if you had unprotected sex and you're worried about a possible HIV exposure, it's important to understand that hepatitis can be spread in the same fashion...ditto for chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes and syphilis."

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