HIV Facts

Understanding HIV/AIDS

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This is the virus that causes AIDS. When HIV gets into a person’s body, their immune systems create substances called antibodies. When you get an HIV test, it actually looks for these antibodies. If you have them, you are HIV-positive. Being HIV-positive does not mean you have AIDS, but it may mean that you need to see your doctor on a regular basis, take anti-HIV medications and always practice safer sex. A person can be HIV-positive for many years without becoming sick. Even when healthy, there is a possibility of transmitting the virus on to another person. You cannot tell by someone’s appearance if they have HIV or not. HIV, like other viruses, does not have the ability to reproduce on its own. In order to reproduce, it invades cells of the immune system and uses their replication abilities to reproduce. Over time, this damages the immune system and creates opportunities for many diseases.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and is the result of HIV infection. When a person has AIDS, their body may be at risk for acquiring many infections. Some bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites that once seemed harmless may cause serious illness, or even death, when a person has AIDS. Only a medical professional can diagnose a person with AIDS. Blood tests and physical examinations must be performed in order to make the diagnosis. For a detailed definition of AIDS, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at

How does someone get AIDS?

If you are infected with HIV, you may develop AIDS. AIDS is a result of HIV infection. HIV is transmitted through intimate physical or sexual contact with a person who is infected, through blood-to-blood contact with a person who is infected, and a mother can pass the virus to her baby during labor, delivery or breastfeeding. HIV is found in the blood, semen, vaginal secretions and breast milk of those with the virus. If these fluids have contact with broken skin, mucous membranes or are inserted into the body with a needle, HIV transmission can occur. A latex condom used consistently and correctly during each sexual act may help prevent HIV infection. You should always wear latex gloves when cleaning up any spilled bodily fluids, and you should always use a clean or new needle for injecting prescribed or non-prescribed drugs. Sharing needles for any reason (tattooing, piercing, drug use) is extremely risky.

What are the symptoms of HIV infection?

Many people do not have any symptoms when they first become infected with HIV. Some people, however, have a flu-like illness within a month or two after exposure to the virus. This illness, called acute retroviral syndrome, may include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Enlarged lymph nodes (glands of the immune system easily felt in the neck and groin)

These symptoms usually disappear within a week to a month and are often mistaken for those of another viral infection. During this period, HIV is present in large amounts in genital fluids and may be transmitted easily. More persistent or severe symptoms may not appear for 10 years or more after HIV first enters the body in adults, or within two years in children born with HIV infection. This period of “asymptomatic” infection is highly individual. Some people may begin to have symptoms within a few months, while others may be symptom-free for more than 10 years.

What are the symptoms of AIDS?

There are several symptoms of AIDS and each person may or may not experience them the same. You must remember that there is a difference between HIV infection and AIDS as we have discussed earlier. There has been known symptoms at the onset of HIV infection, which include fever, fatigue, and flu like symptoms (this is referred to as an acute infection). This is probably due to the virus just entering the body. However, those symptoms will fade and often people don’t even associate it with HIV. Therefore, many people don’t realize that they are HIV infected until testing occurs or the onset symptoms of AIDS. The following are symptoms of AIDS:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Excessive Weight Loss
  • Night Sweats
  • Diarrhea
  • Swollen Lymph Glands
  • White spots in mouth or vaginal discharge (signs of thrush infection)
  • Memory or Movement Problems
  • Skin Rashes

Important: These symptoms are prolonged &chronic lasting longer than usual. Many other things can cause any one or combination of symptoms and the symptoms don’t come in any specific order. Some people may not experience symptoms, but have AIDS.   The following information gives more detail to the most common symptoms of AIDS:

Fatigue – It seems to be an integral part of modern life. The kind of fatigue that may be symptomatic of AIDS is persistent and worsening. This does not mean that someone can’t have “good” days, but the fatigue will last for long periods of time. The fatigue may be described as a general malaise or just “not feeling up to par.” For some people, fatigue will be the result of common activities, like washing the dishes or climbing a flight of stairs.

Fever, Chills & Night Sweats – These symptoms are very common for almost any infection and actually seem to be integral to the body’s natural response to a virus. Until they have persisted for several weeks, they should not be considered suspicious for AIDS. The symptoms could easily be indicative of other infections. The night sweats are drenching, such that the sheets on the bed will be soaking wet. The fevers and chills can come at any time of the day, although late afternoon and early evening are the most common time of elevated temperatures for any illness.

Weight Loss – People with AIDS often experience profound weight loss, usually considered to be 10% of the body weight or more within a month or two for no apparent reason. If people have some other type of infection, especially one that has lowered their appetite or caused diarrhea, some weight loss is bound to occur. Excess stress or a large change in daily routine can also cause someone to temporarily lose weight. Weight loss in PLWA’s (Person’s living With AIDS) is usually caused by an overgrowth of microorganisms on the walls of the intestine, which prevents the absorption of nutrients and can cause dehydration. Weight loss can also be caused by a breakdown of the body’s protein and inability to store fat in the face of infection.

Swollen Lymph Glands – Almost anytime you get any sort of infection, you will have one or more lymph glands swell up. This happens because T-cells, which are called into action to fight infection and pass through the lymph glands, attach themselves to the impurities, causing the glands to swell. A swollen lymph node indicates that you are currently battling some type of infection. Lymph nodes are located in all parts of your body, but the largest concentrations are in the neck, under the arms, and in the groin. The response of the infection is often local. If the infection is in your throat, your neck lymph nodes will probably swell; if the infection is in your stomach area, your groin lymph nodes will swell. It is not common, after any serious infection, for your lymph nodes to remain swollen for several weeks. Also, some people will have more noticeable swelling than others. If your lymph nodes remain swollen for more than two months, it may be suspicious for AIDS although there are other illnesses that can cause this reaction. It usually takes some training to find lymph nodes during an exam, so it is not a good idea to poke yourself looking for them.

White Spots in Mouth – This refers to either thrush or hairy leukoplakia, both of which cause white spots or patches to appear on the tongue or gums. Both indicate some underlying immune deficiency and should be seen by a doctor. Thrush is a yeast infection in the mouth caused by Candida Albicans. When Candida spreads from the mouth to the esophagus or lungs, it triggers a diagnosis of AIDS. Hairy Leukoplakia typically manifests as white bands on the sides of the tongue. It is caused by two viruses living together. Yeast infections can be easily scraped off, whereas Leukoplakia cannot be easily removed.

Diarrhea – Is a common symptom of many diseases and usually lasts from one to several days. For different people, diarrhea may be considered to be anything from slightly loose stools to very watery, frequent bowel movements. If the diarrhea goes on for two weeks or more, it could be something serious, but it still may be something other than AIDS. Diarrhea for more than several days warrants a visit to the doctor. In people with AIDS, diarrhea may be caused by several things. PLWA’s often have an overgrowth of bacteria on the intestine, which prevents proper absorption, leading to diarrhea, weight loss, and malnutrition. Intestinal parasites, including cryptosporidiosis, can cause moderate to severe diarrhea. Also, fighting infections can cause a purging of the tract, resulting in diarrhea.

Acute Viral Infection – A few weeks after infection there are flu like symptoms for approximately 1 – 2 weeks; then they go away. Acute Viral Infection looks exactly like the common flu and is difficult to prove the symptoms are due to HIV. A person may or may not test positive on an antibody test at this time.

A person can have HIV/AIDS without having any symptoms.

What is a CD4 cell?

A CD4 cell, or T-cell, is a part of the immune system. This cell assists the immune system in mounting attacks against invaders such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. Without healthy CD4 cells, the immune system is not as likely to be successful in fighting illness. As HIV damages the immune system, the number of CD4 cells begins to decline. A doctor will monitor this level over time to look for changes. It may be a good idea for you to track this number for yourself, too.

What is a viral load?

Viral load is simply how much virus is in the blood stream. Your doctor will order this blood test several times per year to determine if you should take anti-HIV medications or if your medications are working. It may be a good idea for you to track this number for yourself, too. When taking anti-HIV medications, some people achieve very low levels of HIV in their blood and have “undetectable” viral loads. This does not mean that the virus is not still in a person’s body, or that the viral load is “undetectable” in other bodily fluids. A person with an undetectable viral load can still pass HIV to another person through sexual behavior or unsafe drug use.

How long can a person live with HIV/AIDS?

Medications to treat HIV disease have steadily improved over time. It is impossible to determine how long a person may live after being infected with HIV or even after being diagnosed with AIDS. Each person’s body is very unique. It is recommended that you seek out a physician who specializes in HIV/AIDS care, educate yourself as much as possible and develop a support system of family, friends and/or care providers. Doing these things, and taking all medications exactly as prescribed may help you live a better and longer life.

Will I have to take medications for HIV?

Anti-HIV medications, called antiretrovirals, are recommended for those living with HIV who have symptoms, a high viral load or a low CD4 count. Discussing all of these things with a medical provider you trust may help you make a decision about treatment. Antiretrovirals are designed to stop HIV from being able to replicate in your body. If the virus cannot replicate, the amount of virus begins to decrease in your body, and the immune system may begin to get healthier again. The medications only work when taken correctly, so it’s important to get educated about them before you begin therapy. Some people decide to not take medications or to take an alternative approach to their care. If you would like to explore more about alternative methods of treatment, you may want to seek out a physician who is knowledgeable and open to alternative methods.