The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks your immune system and destroys certain blood cells that help fight off other infections. With the right medications and medical care, most people with HIV can improve their health and live longer. Medication can stop HIV from growing in your body and decrease your risk of spreading the virus.

If untreated, HIV can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS is the later stage of HIV, when your immune system is severely damaged and cannot fight off other diseases.

There is currently no cure for HIV/AIDS.

Contracting HIV/AIDS

Primarily, you can get HIV from:

  • Sex with an infected person without barrier protection (including oral, vaginal and anal sex)
  • Contact with blood from an infected person (e.g. sharing drug needles)
  • Being born to an infected mother, who can pass HIV to her child during pregnancy, birth or breast-feeding

Very rarely, you can get HIV from:

  • Blood transfusion or organ transplant (strict testing makes this extremely rare)
  • Accidental needle injury (mainly in health care workers)
  • Contact with HIV-infected blood in broken skin or mucous membranes
  • Deep kissing, if there is blood in the mouth
  • Artificial insemination with infected semen

You cannot get HIV from:

  • Casual contact, such as hugging or touching
  • Saliva, sweat or tears
  • Mosquitoes

HIV/AIDS Symptoms

Common early symptoms of HIV infection are swollen glands and flu-like symptoms that may come and go a month or two after infection.

They include:

  • Fever/chills
  • Rash
  • Night sweats
  • Muscle aches
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Unexplained weight loss

Many people with HIV may have few or no symptoms for years after infection.

HIV/AIDS Diagnosis

A blood or saliva test by a medical provider or testing site, such as the health department, can show if you have HIV.

Everyone ages 13-64 should be tested at least once. If you are at higher risk for HIV, you should get tested more often.

HIV can lead to AIDS. Someone with HIV is diagnosed with AIDS when a blood test shows that their CD4+ T cell count falls below 200 cells/mm 3 or they get certain rare types of infections or cancers. Because their immune system is so weak, they often get various diseases such as cancer, shingles, pneumonia, tuberculosis, meningitis and encephalitis.

HIV/AIDS Treatment

People with HIV can take a combination of medicines called antiretroviral therapy (ART) to strengthen their immune system and keep the HIV virus from multiplying. The medicines cannot cure HIV; they help keep the virus under control. Regular visits to a health care provider specializing in HIV are essential.

At Wake Forest Baptist Health, our infectious diseases specialists run the Ryan White HIV clinic where adults who are 18 years or older and are HIV positive can receive care regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay.

HIV/AIDS Prevention

  • Practice safe sex, such as using latex condoms in every sexual encounter
  • Limit your number of sex partners
  • Abstain from sexual activity or be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship
  • Do not share needles/works when injecting
  • Avoid contact with blood or bodily fluids, using gloves and other protection if needed

If you think you have been exposed to HIV, get medical attention right away. You can take medications, called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which can lower your risk of getting HIV. But, you should start using PEP within 36 hours of exposure, so act quickly.