Anonymous on October 20, 2011

HIV ⎼ what is it?

I know that a lot of people get really worried about HIV. What is it? 

answered by Lisa Oldson, MD on October 20, 2011

Thanks so much for sharing your question with us. I’m happy to help. 

First, HIV is the common abbreviation for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Like its name implies, HIV is a virus the weakens the body’s immune system, making it harder to fight off infections. 

How is HIV transmitted? The virus is typically spread through bodily fluids like blood, semen and vaginal fluids. In other words, HIV is commonly a sexually transmitted disease (STD). But the virus can also spread by sharing infected intravenous drug needles...or, in rare cases, HIV can be transmitted through blood transfusions. As well, a mother infected with HIV could pass the virus to her baby during pregnancy, delivery or through breastfeeding. 

What about HIV and AIDS? HIV is the virus that can cause acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). When a person is HIV-positive, the virus attacks the immune system ⎼ particularly a specific type of cell called T-cells. These cells tell the body when a virus or bacteria is in the body, and signal the body to protect itself. But with HIV, the number of T-cells in the body can eventually go down, which makes it harder for the body to fight infections and diseases. And when a person’s T-cell count becomes low, doctors generally diagnose that person with AIDS. 

The good news is, the sooner that HIV is detected, the sooner it can be treated and managed...and the more likely it is that T-cell counts stay at normal, longer. 

Getting tested for HIV and other STDs is the only way to know your health status for sure. So, especially if you’re sexually active, regular testing for HIV and other common STDs is a good idea. 

Thanks again for your great question. And if you’d like to learn more about what HIV is, you might want to read through our Expert Guide to HIV. 

Related info: 

Lisa Oldson, MD

Dr. Oldson is Medical Director of the Analyte Physicians Group. She is on staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, as well as Clinical Instructor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. Her areas of expertise include STDs (with a particular clinical emphasis on herpes), women's health, preventive medicine, diabetes, obesity and weight management, and mood and anxiety disorders. Dr. Oldson was educated at Rush Medical College and completed her residency at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, IL.

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