Anonymous on November 23, 2011

What causes HIV?

What causes HIV? How can I protect myself?

answered by Lisa Oldson, MD on November 23, 2011

Thanks so much for your question. 

HIV (short for human immunodeficiency virus) is a viral infection that damages and weakens the body’s immune system. Specifically, HIV attacks the CD4+ T-cells (or, “helper” cells) that boost the body’s defenses.   

After HIV has been in the body for a long time without treatment, so many T-cells can become damaged that it’s difficult for the body to fight off even small infections. Pneumonia, some cancers and other infections (including AIDS) are a few of the health problems that can affect people with an untreated HIV infection.

Luckily, treatment makes a big difference in the health of people with HIV. Regular HIV screening helps people with a new HIV infection get the treatment they need...sooner, rather than later. In other words, early detection is key to starting treatment early, which helps an infected person to live a healthier life for as long as possible. 

How can you protect yourself from HIV? HIV can be transmitted through bodily fluids like vaginal fluid, semen, blood and breast milk. Unprotected sexual activity and intravenous drug use are two of the most common ways people get HIV. So it’s a good idea to practice safer sex, avoid sharing intravenous needles, and know the HIV and STD status of your sexual partner or partners.

To read further, I recommend our Expert Guide to HIV. Or, if you want to know more about HIV testing, visit our HIV and STD Testing Guide.

Thanks for sharing your question, and I wish you good health.

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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