HIV 101



H – Human – This particular virus can only infect humans.

I – Immunodeficiency - HIV weakens your immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection.  A “deficient” immune system can’t protect you.

V – Virus – A virus can only reproduce itself by taking over a cell in the body of its host.

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).  HIV is a lot like other viruses, including those that cause the “flu” or the common cold.  But there is a difference – over time, your immune system can clear most viruses out of your body.  That isn't the case with HIV – the human immune system can’t seem to get rid of it.  Scientists are still trying to figure out why.


A – Acquired – An infection acquired after birth

I – Immuno – Refers to your immune system

D – Deficiency – Your immune system is deficient and is not working the way it should

S – Syndrome - A syndrome is a collection of symptoms and signs of disease.

A person is diagnosed with AIDS when their immune system is too weak to fight off infections.  It is the final stage of HIV infection.


Scientists believe HIV came from a particular kind of chimpanzee in Western Africa. Humans probably came in contact with HIV when they hunted and ate infected animals. Recent studies indicate that HIV may have jumped from monkeys to humans as far back as the late 1800s.  Learn more about the timeline of HIV over the past 30 years on


HIV is found in specific human body fluids.  If any of those fluids enter your body, you can become infected with HIV.  Human body fluids that contain high levels of HIV:

  • Blood
  • Semen (cum)
  • Pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum)
  • Breast milk
  • Vaginal Fluids
  • Rectal (anal) mucus

Other body fluids and waste products—like feces, nasal fluid, saliva, sweat, tears, urine, or vomit—don’t contain enough HIV to infect you, unless they have blood mixed in them and you have significant and direct contact with them.


  1. During sexual contact:  When you have anal, oral, or vaginal sex with a partner, you will usually have contact with your partner’s body fluids. If your partner has HIV, those body fluids can deliver the virus into your bloodstream through microscopic breaks or rips in the delicate linings of your vagina, vulva, penis, rectum, or mouth. Rips in these areas are very common and mostly unnoticeable. HIV can also enter through open sores, like those caused by herpes or syphilis, if infected body fluids get in them. You need to know that it’s much easier to get HIV (or to give it to someone else), if you have a sexually transmitted disease (STD). 
  2. During pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding: Babies have constant contact with their mother’s body fluids-including amniotic fluid and blood throughout pregnancy and childbirth. After birth, infants can get HIV from drinking infected breast milk.
  3. As a result of injection drug use: Injecting drugs puts you in contact with blood-your own and others, if you share needles. Needles or drugs that are contaminated with HIV-infected blood can deliver the virus directly into your body.
  4. As a result of occupational exposure: Healthcare workers have the greatest risk for this type of HIV transmission. If you work in a healthcare setting, you can come into contact with infected blood or other fluids through needle sticks or cuts. 
  5. As a result of a blood transfusion with infected blood or an organ transplant from an infected donor: Screening requirements make both of these forms of HIV transmission very rare in the United States.


AIDS is the late stage of HIV infection, when a person’s immune system is severely damaged and has difficulty fighting diseases and certain cancers. Before the development of certain medications, people with HIV could progress to AIDS in just a few years. Currently, people can live much longer - even decades - with HIV before they develop AIDS. This is because current medications used to treat HIV infection, known as anti retro-viral therapy, can limit or slow down the destruction of the immune system, improve the health of people living with HIV, and may reduce their ability to transmit HIV. 


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  • Speak openly with partners about safer sex techniques and HIV status.
  • If you don't know your status, get an HIV test to protect yourself and others.
  • Get tested with your partner as a way of saying "you care and want both of you to stay healthy."
  • Use a latex condom with each oral, anal or vaginal sexual encounter. Those with latex allergies should use latex-free condoms.
  • Do not share needles or syringes if you inject drugs. If you do inject drugs, seek professional help to kick your habit.
  • HIV infected pregnant women should get into regular prenatal care.
  • HIV infected women should not breast feed.


When first infected with HIV, a person may have no signs or symptoms at all, although the virus can still be transmitted to others.  Many people develop a brief flu-like illness two to four weeks after becoming infected.  Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Fever (this is the most common symptom)
  • Swollen glands
  • Sore throat
  • Rash
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle and joint aches and pains
  • Headache

These symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. However, you should not assume you have HIV if you have any of these symptoms. Each of these symptoms can be caused by other illnesses. Many people who are infected with HIV do not have any symptoms at all for 10 years or more. 

You cannot rely on symptoms to know whether you have HIV. The only way to know for sure if you are infected with HIV is to get tested. If you think you have recently been exposed to HIV—if you have had oral, vaginal or anal sex without a condom with a known HIV positive person or a partner whose HIV status you do not know or shared needles to inject drugs—get an HIV test. Traditional HIV tests detect HIV antibodies. But during this early stage your body is not yet producing these antibodies. A new HIV test was approved in 2013 that can detect the presence of HIV in your body during this early stage of infection. So no matter where you get tested, it is very important to let your provider know that you may have been recently infected with HIV and you would like to be tested for acute HIV. 


If you have HIV and you are not taking HIV medication (antiretroviral therapy), eventually the HIV virus will weaken your body’s immune system. The onset of symptoms signals the transition from the clinical latency stage to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).

During this late stage of HIV infection, people infected with HIV may have the following symptoms:

Rapid weight lossRecurring fever or profuse night sweatsExtreme and unexplained tirednessProlonged swelling of the lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neckDiarrhea that lasts for more than a weekSores of the mouth, anus, or genitalsPneumoniaRed, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelidsMemory loss, depression, and other neurologic disorders.

Each of these symptoms can be related to other illnesses. So, as noted above, the only way to know for sure if you are infected with HIV is to get tested.

Many of the severe symptoms and illnesses of HIV disease come from the opportunistic infections that occur because your body’s immune system has been damaged.