HIV/AIDS Information and Frequently Asked Questions
What is HIV?
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. If left untreated, HIV can lead to the disease AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
Unlike some other viruses, the human body can’t get rid of HIV completely. So once you have 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. If left untreated, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells (T cells) in the body, making the person more likely to get 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 state of HIV infection.
No effective cure for HIV currently exists, but with proper treatment and 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 with HIV, keep them healthy, and greatly lower their chance of transmitting the virus to others. Today, a person who is diagnosed with HIV, treated before the disease is far advanced, and stays on treatment can live a nearly as long as someone who does not have HIV.The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. Testing is relatively simple. You can ask your health care provider for an HIV test. Many medical clinics, substance abuse programs, community health centers, and hospitals offer them too. You can also buy a home testing kit at a pharmacy or online.
What is AIDS?
AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection, and not everyone who has HIV advances to this stage.
AIDS is the stage of infection that occurs when your immune system is badly damaged and you become vulnerable to opportunistic infections. When the number of your CD4 cells falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (200 cells/mm3), you are considered to have progressed to AIDS. (The CD4 count of an uninfected adult/adolescent who is generally in good health ranges from 500 cells/mm3 to 1,600 cells/mm3.) You can also be diagnosed with AIDS if you develop one or more opportunistic infections, regardless of your CD4 count.
Without treatment, people who are diagnosed with AIDS typically survive about 3 years. Once someone has a dangerous opportunistic illness, life expectancy without treatment falls to about 1 year. People with AIDS need medical treatment to prevent death.
How is it Spread?
You can get or transmit HIV only through specific activities. Most commonly, people get or transmit HIV through sexual behaviors and needle or syringe use.
HIV is not spread easily. Only certain body fluids from a person who has HIV can transmit HIV:
- Semen (cum)
- Pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum)
- Rectal fluids
- Vaginal fluids
- Breast milk
These body fluids must come into contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue or be directly injected into your bloodstream (by a needle or syringe) for transmission to occur. Mucous membranes are found inside the rectum, vagina, penis, and mouth.
If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, get tested. You can get tested at your healthcare provider’s office, a clinic, and other locations. You can also get a HIV home test kit from your local pharmacy.
How is it Transmitted?
In the United States, HIV is spread mainly by:
- Having anal or vaginal sex with someone who has HIV without using a condom or taking medicines to prevent or treat HIV.
- Anal sex is the highest-risk sexual behavior. For the HIV-negative partner, receptive anal sex (“bottoming”) is riskier than insertive anal sex (“topping”).
- Vaginal sex is the second highest-risk sexual behavior.
- Sharing needles or syringes, rinse water, or other equipment (“works”) used to prepare injection drugs with someone who has HIV. HIV can live in a used needle up to 42 days depending on temperature and other factors.
- Less commonly, HIV may be spread:
- From mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding.
- Although the risk can be high if a mother is living with HIV and not taking medicine, recommendations to test all pregnant women for HIV and start HIV treatment immediately have lowered the number of babies who are born with HIV.
- By being stuck with an HIV-contaminated needle or other sharp object. This is a risk mainly for health care workers.
In extremely rare cases, HIV has been transmitted by:
- Oral sex—putting the mouth on the penis (fellatio), vagina (cunnilingus), or anus (rimming). In general, there is little to no risk of getting HIV from oral sex. But transmission of HIV, though extremely rare, is theoretically possible if an HIV-positive man ejaculates in his partner’s mouth during oral sex. To learn more about how to lower your risk, see CDC’s Oral Sex and HIV Risk.
- Receiving blood transfusions, blood products, or organ/tissue transplants that are contaminated with HIV. This was more common in the early years of HIV, but now the risk is extremely small because of rigorous testing of the U.S. blood supply and donated organs and tissues.
- Eating food that has been pre-chewed by an HIV-infected person. The contamination occurs when infected blood from a caregiver’s mouth mixes with food while chewing. The only known cases are among infants.
- Being bitten by a person with HIV. Each of the very small number of documented cases has involved severe trauma with extensive tissue damage and the presence of blood. There is no risk of transmission if the skin is not broken.
- Contact between broken skin, wounds, or mucous membranes and HIV-infected blood or blood-contaminated body fluids.
- Deep, open-mouth kissing if the person with HIV has sores or bleeding gums and blood from the HIV-positive partner gets into the bloodstream of the HIV-negative partner. HIV is not spread through saliva.
How do I Lower my Risk of Getting HIV
Not having sex is the best way to prevent getting or transmitting HIV. If you’re sexually active, here are several highly effective actions you can take to reduce your risk of getting HIV, and the more of these actions you take, the safer you can be:
- Choose less risky sexual behaviors. Sexual activities carry different levels of risk for getting or transmitting HIV. HIV is mainly spread by having anal or vaginal sex without a condom or without taking medicines to prevent HIV. Anal sex is the riskiest type of sex for HIV transmission. It’s possible for either partner—the insertive partner (top) or the receptive partner (bottom)—to get HIV, but it is much riskier for an HIV-negative partner to be the receptive partner. Vaginal sex also carries a risk for HIV transmission, but it is less risky than anal sex.
- Oral sex poses little to no risk of getting or transmitting HIV.
- Use condoms consistently and correctly. When used consistently and correctly, condoms are highly effective in preventing HIV.
- 4. Reduce the number of people you have sex with. The number of sex partners you have affects your HIV risk. The more partners you have, the more likely you are to have a partner with HIV whose viral load is not suppressed or to have a sex partner with a sexually transmitted disease. Both of these factors can increase the risk of HIV transmission. Talk to your doctor about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is a way for people who do not have HIV but who are at substantial risk of getting it to prevent HIV infection by taking a pill every day. Studies have shown that PrEP is highly effective for preventing HIV from sex if it’s used as prescribed, but PrEP is much less effective when it isn’t taken consistently.
PrEP should be considered if:
- You are HIV-negative and in an ongoing sexual relationship with an HIV-positive partner
- You aren’t in a mutually monogamous relationship with a recently tested, HIV-negative partner and you are a gay or bisexual man who has had anal sex without a condom or has been diagnosed with an sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the past 6 months; or
- You are heterosexual man or woman who does not regularly use condoms during sex with partners of unknown HIV status who at at very high risk of HIV (e.g. people who inject drugs or women who have bisexual male partners).
Talk to your doctor right away (within 3 days) about post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) if you’re HIV negative or don’t know your status and think you have been recently exposed to HIV during sex. An example of a possible exposure is if you have anal or vaginal sex without a condom with someone who is or may be HIV-positive, and you are HIV-negative and not taking PrEP. Your chance of exposure to HIV is lower if your HIV-positive partner is taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) consistently, especially if his/her viral load is undetectable. Starting PEP immediately and taking it daily for 4 weeks reduces your chance of getting HIV.
Get tested and treated for other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and encourage your partners to do the same. If you are sexually active, get tested at least once a year. STDs can have long-term health consequences. They can also increase your chance of getting HIV or transmitting it to others.
If your partner is HIV-positive, encourage your partner to get and stay on HIV treatment. ART reduces the amount of HIV virus (viral load) in blood and body fluids. If taken consistently and correctly, ART can keep people with HIV healthy for many years, and greatly reduce their chance of transmitting HIV to sex partners.
How is HIV NOT transmitted?
HIV does not survive long outside the human body (such as on surfaces) and it cannot reproduce outside a human host. It is not spread by:
- Air or water
- Mosquitoes, ticks or other insects
- Saliva, tears, or sweat that is not mixed with the blood of an HIV-positive person
- Shaking hands, hugging, sharing toilets, sharing dishes/drinking glasses, or closed-mouth or “social” kissing with someone who is HIV-positive
- Drinking fountains
- Other sexual activities that don’t involve the exchange of body fluids (for example, touching).
What are PrEP/PEP?
PrEP: Short for “pre-exposure prophylaxis,” PrEP is an HIV prevention strategy in which HIV-negative people take an oral pill once a day before coming into contact with HIV to reduce their risk of HIV infection. PrEP must be taken for at least 7 days to reach optimal levels of protection against HIV.
PEP: Short for “post-exposure prophylaxis,” PEP is an HIV prevention strategy in which HIV-negative people take anti-HIV medications after coming into contact with HIV to reduce their risk of HIV infection. PEP must be started within 72 hours after HIV exposure.
Truvada for PrEP Medication Assistance Program
The Truvada® for PrEP medication assistance program assists eligible HIV-negative adults in the United States who require assistance paying for Truvada (emtricitabine and tenofovir disoproxil fumarate) for PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). To find out if you are eligible for this medication assistance program, call 1-855-330-5479, Monday through Friday between 9:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (Eastern).
Private Group for People Living With HIV
If you're interested in joining a group specifically for people living with HIV, please contact our director, Andy Cofino at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HIV Risk Reduction Tool
Check out the CDC's HIV Risk Reduction Tool to help measure your risk for HIV.
UCLA Health Care Center PrEP Clinic
Access PrEP and STI reduction visits with a Registered Nurse.