The Five Most Important Things You Should Know About: HIV

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes AIDS in the later stages of the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one million people in the United States are infected with HIV/AIDS, and about a quarter of those people don’t know they’re infected. Approximately 39.5 million people are infected with HIV worldwide. With those high numbers, it’s important that everyone knows how HIV spreads and how to avoid contracting the virus.

  1. HIV attacks the immune system by destroying white blood cells that fight off disease. Once HIV has weakened the immune system to the point where the body can’t fight off infection, the infection advances to its final stage: AIDS. It can take years for the body to arrive at this stage. People infected with HIV/AIDS usually die of other so-called “opportunistic” diseases and cancers that the body can no longer fight off.
  2. HIV lives in the blood and semen or vaginal fluid of the infected person. This is why the most common ways of transmitting HIV is through vaginal, oral, or anal intercourse. The second most common way of transmitting HIV is through the sharing of needles and syringes. Lastly, HIV can be transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, and breast-feeding. Because HIV is carried in the infected person’s blood, the virus can also be transmitted through blood transfusions, organ and tissue transplants, and shared needles. HIV is not transmitted through handshaking, hugging, contact with a toilet seat, touching a doorknob, or casual contact, and HIV cannot live outside the body for long.
  3. Because so many people infected with HIV in the US don’t know they’re infected, it’s essential to understand the risk factors of HIV. Relying solely on the symptoms (they’re often flu-like) isn’t a dependable way of determining whether you’ve been infected with the virus. Some risk factors for contracting HIV are having unprotected sexual intercourse with multiple partners, having other sexually transmitted diseases, and sharing needles. If you have any of these risk factors, you should get tested for HIV to prevent spreading the disease to others.
  4. Getting tested for HIV is extremely easy and painless. There are even home kits. Tests consist of mouth swabs and blood tests. Some give rapid results and others take longer. To make a HIV test appointment, call 1-800-CDC-INFO.
  5. Everyone who is sexually active should be knowledgeable about basic HIV prevention methods to stay safe because there is no cure for AIDS. There is no vaccine to prevent HIV, but there are ways to prevent contracting it. Always use latex condoms when having sexual intercourse. If you use drugs, always use clean needles. Talk to your sexual partners before engaging in sexual activity. Get regular HIV/AIDS screening tests.

[CDC, Mayo Clinic]