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HIV and AIDS

What are HIV and AIDS?
HIV is an abbreviation for human immunodeficiency virus. This virus kills or damages cells in the body's immune system, destroying its ability to fight infection and certain cancers. AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV infection.

HIV is spread by exposing open cuts, microscopic tears or mucous membranes in the vagina, penis, or anus to infected blood, semen, or vaginal secretions. Blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk are capable of transmitting HIV; saliva, urine, feces, tears and sweat are not considered infectious.

HIV is principally spread through anal or vaginal intercourse and sharing needles and syringes with an infected person. A person can acquire HIV from receiving infected blood or blood products (principally before 1985) or being born to an infected mother. HIV has rarely been known to be transmitted by oral sex. If you have a sexually transmitted infection, you may be more susceptible to HIV infection. HIV is not spread through casual contact or by biting insects.

How is HIV diagnosed?
HIV infection can be detected by a blood test. Learn more about HIV testing.

Because testable levels of HIV antibodies take three months to develop after exposure, you should wait 12 weeks from the last possible exposure to be tested. However, HIV can still be transmitted before it shows up on an antibody test.

A positive test result does not mean that the person has AIDS; only that he or she has been infected with HIV and can transmit the virus.

There is no fixed time limit for a person to show symptoms of AIDS after being exposed to HIV. People can be HIV-positive for years, never showing symptoms but still being able to transmit the virus to others. AIDS is diagnosed when a person becomes ill with an opportunistic infection such as pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) or Kaposi's sarcoma, a rare form of skin cancer.

In early stages of HIV infection, there typically are no symptoms. As the disease progresses, common symptoms include chronic swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits or groin; unexplained weight loss of more than 10 pounds; persistent diarrhea; persistent flu-like symptoms; white spots in the mouth; recurring fever, chills or night sweats; persistent fatigue; purple spots on the skin and inside the mouth, nose or rectum; and unusual susceptibility to parasitic, fungal, bacterial and viral infections or certain cancers.

How is are HIV and AIDS treated?
Currently there is no cure for HIV or AIDS. However, there are drugs that are effective in slowing the course of the disease. Many new medications have been developed to treat some of the opportunistic infections that make AIDS patients sick, prolonging and increasing the quality of life.