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HIV 101 & FAQs

Let's start with the basics. Check out our FAQs below for answers to your most common questions. Want to learn more? Visit AIDS.gov for comprehensive HIV/AIDS information, resources, and more. Or submit your question to The Damien Center here.

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV can only infect human beings (H), weakens your immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection (I), and, as a virus, can only reproduce itself by taking over a cell in the body of its host (V). HIV is a lot like other viruses, like those that cause the flu or the common cold, except that normally, your immune system can clear most viruses out of your body. With HIV, our bodies can’t get rid of it. Once you have HIV, you have it for life. The good news? With proper treatment, called antiretroviral therapy (ART, sometimes referred to as high active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART), you can keep the level of HIV in your body low, so it is considered undetectable.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. AIDS is acquired (A) – it’s not something you inherit from your parents. A person acquires AIDS after birth. AIDS involves the body’s immune system (I), which includes all the organs and cells that work to fight off infection or disease. A person with HIV is diagnosed with AIDS when their immune system has reached a certain level of deficiency, or isn't working the way it should. Lastly, AIDS is a syndrome (S), or a complex illness with a wide range of complications, symptoms, and signs of disease.

How is AIDS different than HIV?

AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection, though not everyone who has HIV advances to this stage. People at this stage of HIV infection have badly damaged immune systems, which puts them at risk for opportunistic infections (OIs, or infections that only affect persons with compromised immune systems). If a person is diagnosed with AIDS, they will need medical intervention and treatment to slow the disease's progression. Fortunately, current HIV medicines can control the virus so that people living with HIV can live a longer, healthier life and reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others. Before the introduction of ART in the mid-1990s, people with HIV could progress to AIDS in just a few years. Today, a person who is diagnosed with HIV and treated before the disease advances can have a nearly normal life expectancy.

How do you get HIV?

HIV can only be spread from one person to another through certain body fluids from an HIV-infected person. These body fluids are: blood, semen (cum), pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum), rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and 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 possibly occur. Mucous membranes are the soft, moist areas just inside the openings to your body. They can be found inside the rectum, the vagina or the opening of the penis, and the mouth.

Often, HIV is spread by having sex with someone who has HIV. HIV is also transmitted by sharing needles, syringes, rinse water, or other equipment (“works”) used to prepare injection drugs with someone who has HIV. Less commonly, HIV may be spread by being born to an infected mother, being stuck with an HIV-contaminated needle or other sharp object, oral sex, and other fluid-to-fluid interactions. HIV is NOT spread by air or water, insects -- including mosquitoes or ticks -- saliva, tears, sweat, casual contact like shaking hands, hugging, or sharing dishes/drinking glasses, drinking fountains, or toilet seats.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

The symptoms of HIV vary, depending on a range of factors including your own body and which stage of infection you're experiencing. Many people never experience any symptoms at all. You cannot rely on symptoms to know whether or not you have HIV. The only way to know for sure if you are infected with HIV is to get tested. To learn more about getting tested at The Damien Center, view our Testing information. To read more about the various stages of HIV infection, visit AIDS.gov.

What should I do if I think I have HIV?

If you think you are at risk for contracting HIV, visit our Testing Center and get tested for HIV and other STIs. We know that HIV can hide for long periods of time in the cells of your body before it causes any symptoms, so don’t rely on how you feel to guess whether you’ve contracted HIV—get tested. However, HIV infection won’t show up on an HIV test immediately, so we also recommend getting tested at regular intervals, usually every three to six months depending on how many sexual partners you have and other risk factors. Our certified HIV testers can help you decide what is best for you. Come in today for free and confidential HIV testing!