HIV and AIDS

Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The virus weakens a person's ability to fight infections and cancer. People with HIV are said to have AIDS when they develop certain infections or cancers or when their CD4 count is less than 200. CD4 (T-cell) count is determined by a blood test in a doctor's office.

Having HIV does not always mean that you have AIDS. It can take many years for people with the virus to develop AIDS. HIV and AIDS cannot be cured. However with the medications available today, it is possible to have a normal lifespan with little or minimal interruption in quality of life. There are ways to help people stay healthy and live longer.

How Does HIV and AIDS Cause Illness?

HIV attacks and destroys a type of white blood cell called a CD4 cell, commonly called the T-cell. This cell's main function is to fight disease. When a person's CD4 cell count gets low, they are more susceptible to illnesses.

What Is AIDS?

AIDS is the more advanced stage of HIV infection. When the immune system CD4 cells drop to a very low level, a person's ability to fight infection is lost. In addition, there are several conditions that occur in people with HIV infection with this degree of immune system failure -- these are called AIDS-defining illnesses.

According to the CDC, 1,051,875 people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with AIDS since the disease was first diagnosed in 1981. They also estimate that 583,298 have died from the disease in the U.S.

How Do People Get HIV?

A person gets HIV when an infected person's body fluids (blood, semen, fluids from the vagina or breast milk) enter his or her bloodstream. The virus can enter the blood through linings in the mouth, anus, or sex organs (the penis and vagina), or through broken skin.

Both men and women can spread HIV. A person with HIV can feel OK and still give the virus to others. Pregnant women with HIV also can give the virus to their babies.

Common ways people get HIV:

  • Sharing a needle to take drugs
  • Having unprotected sex with an infected person

You cannot get HIV from:

  • Touching or hugging someone who has HIV/AIDS
  • Public bathrooms or swimming pools
  • Sharing cups, utensils, or telephones with someone who has HIV/AIDS
  • Bug bites

Who Can Get HIV?

Anyone can get HIV if they engage in certain activities. You may have a higher risk of getting HIV if you:

  • Have unprotected sex. This means vaginal or anal intercourse without a condom or oral sex without a latex barrier with a person infected with HIV.
  • Share needles to inject drugs or steroids with an infected person. The disease can also be transmitted by dirty needles used to make a tattoo or in body piercing.
  • Receive a blood transfusion from an infected person. This is very unlikely in the U.S. and Western Europe, where all blood is tested for HIV infection.
  • Are born to a mother with HIV infection. A baby can also get HIV from the breast milk of an infected woman.



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