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In the past HIV/AIDS was considered to be a deadly disease. Medical research has helped health care providers understand HIV and improve available treatments. HIV/AIDS can now be treated with medicine, although chronic infections are still a serious problem. About 1 out of every 4 young people with HIV doesn't know that they have it.


What are HIV and AIDS?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is the virus which, when untreated, becomes AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The virus attacks the body’s immune system, especially white blood cells called T-cells. Your immune system is what fights against infections to keep your body healthy and T-cells play a key role in keeping a person protected from infections. If your immune system is weakened, it can't protect your body and you can easily get sick.


Who gets HIV/AIDS?

As the saying goes, "HIV does not discriminate." Anyone who puts themselves at risk for HIV by having unprotected sex (having sex without a condom) and/or by sharing needles and injection drug equipment with an infected person is at risk for getting the HIV virus. Also, babies can be born with the virus if their mother is infected. In the past, people also got infected from unscreened blood transfusions, but today donated blood is tested for the HIV virus.


Does everyone who has HIV get AIDS?

Not all people with HIV get AIDS. However, if a person's T-cell numbers drop and the amount of virus in the blood stream rises (viral load), the immune system can become too weak to fight off infections, and they are considered to have AIDS. It is then possible to get sick with diseases that do not usually affect other people. One of these diseases is Kaposi Sarcoma (KS), a rare type of skin cancer. Another is a type of pneumonia called Pneumocystis Pneumonia (PCP). These diseases can be treated and a person's T-cells and viral load can return to healtheir levels with the right types of medication, although the AIDS diagnosis stays with them even when healthy.


How is HIV spread?

HIV is found and can be passed from an infected person to another person through blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk. People can most easily be exposed to HIV by having anal, vaginal, and/or in some cases oral sex without using a condom or by using a condom incorrectly. This is especially possible when 1 partner has an open sore or irritation (like the kinds we can get from sexually transmitted infections like herpes or syphilis) or through small tears in the vagina and anus from vaginal or anal intercourse. Infected mothers can pass the HIV virus to their babies, during birth and also during breastfeeding. HIV is also spread when sharing needles or injection drug equipment with an infected person.


HIV can only be spread through intimate contact with one or more of the fluids discussed above.


HIV is not spread by touching, hugging, or shaking hands with an infected person. It is not spread by coughing, sneezing, sharing glasses and dishes, touching toilets or doorknobs. Pets and biting insects, such as mosquitoes, do not spread the virus. Donating blood does not spread HIV either. This is because a new needle is used for each donor, so you never come in contact with another person's blood.


What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?

Some people may get an illness within 6 weeks of HIV infection. This early period in the infection may come with some of the following symptoms:

Since these symptoms are similar to the flu, HIV may go unnoticed. Therefore, it is important to tell your health care provider if you have condomless sex and/or if you share needles. That's a good reason to get tested for HIV!


When HIV progresses to AIDS, a person may have any of the following symptoms:

What should I do if I think I have HIV or AIDS?

If you think you are infected with HIV, or have been exposed to someone whom you suspect or know to be HIV positive, or if you have symptoms, get tested and make an appointment with your health care provider right away. The earlier you get tested the sooner you can start medicine to control the virus. Getting treated early can slow down the progress of the HIV infection and may even prevent you from getting AIDS. Knowing if you are HIV positive or not will also help you make decisions about protecting yourself and others.


How is HIV diagnosed?

HIV is diagnosed using 2 main tests:

What does a "false negative" test result mean?

If you are tested too soon after being exposed to HIV, it is possible that you can get a "false negative". This is because it can take between 2 and 12 weeks after infection for the HIV test to become positive, depending on the type of test used. It is usually recommended that you have the test repeated after 3 months to make sure that you are truly negative.


What about sex partners?

If you have HIV, then you need to tell anyone that you have had sex with or anyone you have ever shared needles with since your last negative HIV test, so they can get tested and treated as soon as possible. If you feel that you can't tell these people or would like help telling them, talk to your health care provider for advice. They can let people know confidentially that they may have been exposed


How is HIV/AIDS treated?

Right now, there is no cure for HIV infection or AIDS. It is a chronic illness and the virus stays in your body for your lifetime. The virus has been treated with a combination of different drugs which, when taken together at the same time every day without missing doses, work to keep the virus quiet so the immune system can stay strong. Following your doctor's treatment plan is extremely important. Your health care provider may also tell you to eat healthy foods, exercise, and lower any stress in your life. All these factors work together to keep you healthy and feeling good.


How can I protect myself from getting HIV?

If you're concerned about HIV, here's a tip on how to bring it up with your health care provider: Should I get tested for HIV?


Written by the CYWH and YMH Staff at Boston Children's Hospital


Updated: 2/11/2015


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