HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus attacks and gradually destroys the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight infections. With a weakened immune system, the body is more vulnerable to deadly infections and cancers.
Once a person is infected, HIV remains in the body for the rest of that person’s life. The blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk of people with HIV have been scientifically shown to transmit HIV infection to others.
Some people with HIV infection — especially those who don’t receive treatment — will eventually develop AIDS. The good news: There are effective treatments that can protect the immune system and delay or prevent the progression to AIDS.
Risk factors for HIV
Those who have the highest risk of getting HIV include the following:
- Intravenous drug users who share needles
- Babies born to HIV-positive mothers who did not get HIV therapy during pregnancy
- People who have sex without using a barrier method of protection (e.g., dental dams or condoms), especially with many different partners (although you can get HIV from a single sexual encounter or partner)
- People who received blood transfusions or clotting products between 1977 and 1985
You cannot get HIV from the following:
- Casual physical contact (e.g., hugging, kissing on the cheek, shaking hands)
- Mosquito bites
- The sweat of an HIV-positive person
- Touching objects that have been touched by a person with HIV
- The saliva of an HIV-positive person
Symptoms may not show up for many years after a person becomes infected with HIV. That’s why it’s important to get tested if you know or think you have been exposed.
The following symptoms can be related to HIV infection:
- Frequent vaginal yeast infections
- Mouth sores, including yeast infection
- Rashes, including seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis
- Persistent sore throat
- Swollen lymph glands
How can I find out if I have HIV infection?
If you have been exposed to HIV or think you may have been, talk to your primary care doctor right away so you can be tested.