HIV 101

What is HIV?

HIV is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.  This virus can eventually cause AIDS.

  • Weakens a person’s ability to fight infections and diseases.
  • Attacks and eventually destroys a type of white blood cells called CD4 or T-cells.
  • When a person’s CD4 cell count gets too low, they are more susceptible to illness.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome and is the final stage of HIV infection.

  • When the immune system CD4 cells (a type of white blood cells) drop to 200 or less, a person’s ability to fight infection is lost.
  • In addition, there are several conditions that occur in people with HIV infection with this degree of immune system failure — these are called AIDS defining illnesses or Opportunistic Infections (OI).
  • With medication and treatment a person living with AIDS can regain CD4 cells and rebuild immune system function.

How do I get HIV?

There are several ways that HIV/AIDS can be spread:

  • Blood
  • Vaginal Fluid
  • Semen
  • Breast Milk

This means that HIV can be transmitted from mother-to-child (via pregnancy, birth or breast feeding), sexual contact with vaginal fluid or semen, sharing of needles or other exposures to blood products.

** You cannot get HIV/AIDS from casual contact such as hugging, kissing, shaking hands, living together, bug bites, using public restrooms, swimming, saliva, tears or by sharing utensils, cups or plates.  You cannot tell someone is positive simply by looking at them.

Can I still have sex if I have HIV?

Having HIV doesn’t mean that you can no longer have sex.  There are many steps that a person living with HIV and their partner can take to protect each other and prevent the transmission of HIV during sex.

  • Condoms are highly effective in preventing the transmission of HIV.
  • Talking honestly with your partner about which sexual activities you’re both comfortable with is an important way to minimize the risk of transmitting the virus. Anal and vaginal sex carry the highest risk, especially for the receptive partner, although the insertive partner can get HIV this way too. Oral sex is less risky and condoms or dental dams make it safer.
  • HIV treatment works by reducing the level of HIV in the body (the viral load) to such an extent that it is clinically referred to as “undetectable”. The effect of this – in addition to keeping the person healthy – is that the risk of transmitting HIV to another person is dramatically reduced.

How do I know if my partner has HIV?

You cannot tell that someone has HIV/AIDS simply by looking at them.  The only way to know your own HIV status or your partners HIV status is by getting tested for HIV.  Without being tested for HIV no person can be sure of their HIV status.  Know your status, get tested!

Is there a cure?

We’ve come a long way from the days when a diagnosis of  HIV automatically equaled complicated medical issues. There is no cure for HIV/AIDS but there are a variety of treatments that, when used in combination can significantly slow down the progression of HIV infection allowing people to live long and prosperous lives.

After HIV infection is confirmed, your doctor can start you on a combination drug regimen that controls the virus from making copies of itself.  There are several types of anti-HIV drugs, also called HAART, for Highly-Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy.

Unfortunately, taking HAART therapy isn’t easy. These drugs must be taken at the right time, every single day in order to be effective. Also, a range of side effects may occur, including: diarrhea, nausea, GI side effects, or abnormal distribution of body fat. And, especially if medications are taken incorrectly or inconsistently, the virus can mutate, or change, into a strain resistant to treatment.