HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is the virus that can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS if not treated. Unlike some other viruses, the human body can’t get rid of HIV completely, even with treatment. So once you get HIV, you have it for life.
HIV attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells (T cells), which help the immune system fight off infections. Untreated, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells (T cells) in the body, making the person more likely to get other infections or infection-related cancers. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. These opportunistic infections or cancers take advantage of a very weak immune system and signal that the person has AIDS, the last stage of HIV infection.
No effective cure currently exists, but with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled. The medicine used to treat HIV is called antiretroviral therapy or ART. If taken the right way, every day, this medicine can dramatically prolong the lives of many people infected with HIV, keep them healthy, and greatly lower their chance of infecting others. Before the introduction of ART in the mid-1990s, people with HIV could progress to AIDS in just a few years. Today, someone diagnosed with HIV and treated before the disease is far advanced can live nearly as long as someone who does not have HIV.
HIV is spread through unprotected vaginal and anal sex – and, to a much lesser degree, through oral sex* – with someone with HIV. “Unprotected” here refers to sex without condoms or the use of medications that reduce the risk of passing HIV from one person to another. Open mouth kissing also can present a risk (still low) if there is blood or sores in the mouth. Sharing needles is another (higher risk) way HIV can be spread.
As important as knowing how someone can get HIV is knowing how someone cannot get HIV. HIV is NOT spread through saliva, tears, sweat or casual contact, like touching or holding hands, a kiss on the cheek, sharing glasses or plates, food, swimming pools, toilet seats, or other every day activities.
HIV can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy, birth and through breastfeeding, although this risk can be almost eliminated – reduced to less than one percent – with antiretroviral (ARVs) and supervised medical care during pregnancy. After birth, a baby may also be put on ARVs for a short period to reduce the chance of getting HIV. ARVs are prescribed medications for people with HIV to improve health.
*According to the CDC: "Though oral sex carries a much lower risk of HIV transmission than other sexual activities, the risk is not zero. It is difficult to measure the exact risk because people who practice oral sex may also practice other forms of sex during the same encounter. When transmission occurs, it may be the result of oral sex or other, riskier sexual activities, such as anal or vaginal sex. Several factors may increase the risk of HIV transmission through oral sex, including oral ulcers, bleeding gums, genital sores, and the presence of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)."
Learn about how to protect yourself and get information tailored to meet your needs from CDC’s HIV Risk Reduction Tool