NurseAsk Nurse Lisa


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 in 4 young people with HIV don’t know that they have it.

What is HIV/AIDS?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is the virus which, when untreated, may result in an Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) diagnosis. 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.

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 bloodstream 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. These diseases may be treated and a person’s T-Cells and viral load can return to healthier levels with the right types of medication, although the AIDS diagnosis stays with them even when they are healthy.

How is HIV spread?

HIV is found in bodily fluids, which include; 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, or through small tears in the vagina and anus from vaginal or anal intercourse. Mothers living with HIV can pass the virus to their babies, during birth and also during breast feeding. HIV is also spread when sharing needles or injection drug equipment with an infected person.

How can I protect myself from getting HIV?

  • The best way to avoid getting HIV is to not have sex and not share needles.
  • If you do decide to have sex, you should always practice safe sex. One example is to use condoms. Condoms come in different textures, sizes, colors, and even flavors so there are plenty of options to try out.
  • Limit the number of sexual partners you have. If you and your partner are sexually active, you can make sure that both of you are tested and treated for HIV and other STIs.
  • Use sterile needles if you plan on getting a tattoo or body piercing or if you use IV drugs. Don’t let anything pierce your skin unless you are sure it is brand new or has been professionally sterilized.
  • Get tested! You can make sure that both you and your partner get tested for HIV before you have sex. Many providers and clinics offer HIV testing for free. IF your test is positive, you might feel scared—talking with your health care provider or HIV tester as soon as possible to learn about treatment is a good place to start. Early treatment improves a person’s health and prevents some of the damage to the immune system that untreated HIV can cause. There are also safe environments like support groups to find help working through your feelings and getting answers to your questions.

What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?

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

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Swollen glands
  • Tiredness
  • Aching joints and muscles
  • Sore throat

Since these symptoms are similar to the flu, HIV may go unnoticed. Therefore, it is important to tell your health care provider if you don’t use condoms during 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:

  • Fever that lasts longer than 1 month
  • Weight loss
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Diarrhea for longer than 1 month
  • Swollen lymph glands
  • Unclear thinking
  • No sense of balance

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, make an appointment with your health care provider and get tested 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 help you make decisions about protecting yourself and others.

Get Help

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Are you in immediate danger?

Call 911 or your local police. If not in an immediate threat, please view resources on the Get Help page.