If you visited the Aware Foundation Group’s website to broaden your sexual health awareness and knowledge, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. Below are frequently asked questions about HIV and AIDS and the answers to those questions.

There’s much more to learn about sexual health and the history of HIV and AIDS beyond what’s provided on this page, so be sure to peruse our Resources & Research page or visit your local library for a deeper dive.

What are HIV and AIDS?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that’s passed from person to person.

Over time, HIV destroys an important type of cell in your immune system called CD4 cells, or T cells, which help your body protect you from infections. When you don’t have enough CD4 cells, your body can’t fight infections as well as it normally can.

Left untreated, HIV might lead to a disease called AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). This usually takes about ten years. A positive AIDS diagnosis means that you’ve gotten a dangerous infection as a result of HIV or have a very low number of CD4 cells left in your immune system. Over time, AIDS can lead to death.

HIV and AIDS are different. And people with HIV don’t always have AIDS.

How is HIV spread?

HIV is carried in semen, vaginal fluids, anal mucus, blood, and breast milk. The virus can enter your body through cuts or sores in your skin, and through mucous membranes, like the inside of the vagina, rectum, and opening of the penis.

You can get HIV from the following:

  • Having vaginal or anal sex

  • Being in contact with a needle or syringe that has HIV-infected blood on it (shooting drugs, getting piercings, getting tattoos, etc.)

  • Getting HIV-infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluids into open cuts or sores on your body

HIV is usually spread through unprotected sex. Using condoms and/or dental dams every time you have sex and not sharing needles can help protect you and your partners from HIV. If you do have HIV, treatment can lower your chances of spreading the virus to other people during sex, or prevent you from spreading it at all. If you don’t have HIV, you can take a daily medicine called PrEP to protect yourself from the virus.

HIV can also be passed to babies during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. A pregnant woman with HIV can take medicine to significantly reduce the chance that her baby will get the virus.

HIV isn’t spread through saliva, so you cannot get it from kissing, sharing food or drinks, or using the same fork or spoon as an HIV-positive person. HIV is not spread through hugging, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing, either. And you can’t get HIV from a toilet seat.

A long time ago, some people got HIV from infected blood transfusions. But now, the process of giving or receiving blood in medical centers is totally safe. Doctors, hospitals, and blood donation centers don’t use needles more than once, and donated blood is tested for HIV and other infections.

What are the symptoms of HIV and AIDS?

Early HIV Symptoms

People usually look and feel totally healthy for a long time after they’re infected. It can take ten years or more for HIV to show any symptoms—or much, much longer than that for people who take HIV medicine. That's why it's critical to get tested for HIV regularly, especially if you’ve had unprotected sex or shared needles.

For the first two to four weeks after becoming infected with HIV, you may feel feverish, achy, and sick. These flu-like symptoms are your body’s first reaction to the HIV infection. During this time, it’s very easy to spread HIV to other people. The symptoms only last for a few weeks, and then, you usually don’t have symptoms again for years. But HIV can be spread to other people whether or not you have symptoms or feel sick.

Later HIV/AIDS Symptoms

HIV destroys CD4 or T cells in your immune system. Without these cells, your body has a hard time fighting off diseases. This makes you more likely to get very ill from infections that usually wouldn’t hurt you. Over time, the damage that HIV does to your immune system leads to AIDS.

Getting rare infections (called opportunistic infections), being diagnosed with certain types of cancer, or losing a certain number of CD4 cells are all signs that you have AIDS.

Symptoms of AIDS include the following:

  • Thrush (a thick, white coating on your tongue or mouth)

  • Sore throat Bad yeast infections Chronic pelvic inflammatory disease Getting bad infections a lot

  • Feeling really tired, dizzy, and lightheaded

  • Headaches

  • Losing lots of weight quickly

  • Bruising more easily than normal

  • Having diarrhea, fevers, or night sweats for a long time

  • Swollen or firm glands in your throat, armpit, or groin

  • Deep, dry coughing spells

  • Feeling short of breath

  • Purplish growths on your skin or inside your mouth

  • Bleeding from the mouth, nose, anus, or vagina

  • Skin rashes

  • Feeling very numb in your hands or feet, losing control of your muscles and reflexes, not being able to move, and losing strength in your muscles

What’s the treatment for HIV?

There’s no cure for HIV, but treatments that help people with HIV live long, healthy lives do exist.

Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is the use of a combination of medicines that slow down the effects of HIV in your body. ART can help you stay healthy for many, many years. It can also lower your chances of giving HIV to anyone else, or even prevent you entirely from passing it on.

ART lowers the amount of the HIV virus in your body (this is called your viral load), sometimes to the point where HIV won’t even show up on an HIV-positive person’s standard blood tests. If your HIV viral load is so low that certain tests can’t see it, it’s called an “undetectable viral load.” When someone has an undetectable viral load, they can’t spread HIV to others during sex.

It’s important to remember that even with an undetectable viral load, HIV is still present in your body. If you stop treatment, your viral load can increase, making it once again possible for you to pass HIV to others. Your doctor or nurse can help you find the treatment that’s best for you to help keep your viral load low, so that you can stay healthy.

Paying attention to your lifestyle can help you stay healthy, too. This means eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, learning how to deal with stress, and avoiding alcohol, smoking, and drugs.

Where can I get treated for HIV?

Find a doctor who has experience treating HIV. Your local health center can help you get the treatment you need. HIV.gov can also help you find an HIV doctor and other support services in your area.