HIV is a virus spread through certain body fluids that attacks the body’s immune system. Untreated, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells (T cells) in the body. This damage to the immune system makes it harder and harder for the body to fight off infections and some other diseases. Opportunistic infections or cancers take advantage of a very weak immune system and signal that the person has AIDS.
Who is at risk
HIV gets passed from person to person in blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, fluids from the vagina and rectum, and breast milk. People who are:
- Having unsafe sex.
- Having sex with someone who has a higher change of getting HIV.
- Sharing needles.
- Giving birth or breastfeeding if the mother is infected.
The early symptoms of HIV infection may include:
- joint pain
- muscle aches
- sore throat
- particularly at night
- enlarged glands
- a red rash
- unintentional weight loss
Symptoms of late-stage HIV infection may include:
- blurred vision
- diarrhea, which is usually persistent or chronic
- dry cough
- a fever of over 100 °F (37 °C) lasting for weeks
- night sweats
- permanent tiredness
- shortness of breath, or dyspnea
- swollen glands lasting for weeks
- unintentional weight loss
- white spots on the tongue or mouth
What you can do
You can use strategies such as abstinence (not having sex), limiting your number of sexual partners, never sharing needles, and using condoms the right way every time you have sex. You may also be able to take advantage of newer HIV prevention medicines such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).
Preventive service at no cost
Adolescents and Adults 15-65 Years Old
The USPSTF recommends that clinicians screen for HIV infection in adolescents and adults aged 15 to 65 years. Younger adolescents and older adults who are at increased risk should also be screened.
The USPSTF recommends that clinicians screen all pregnant women for HIV, including those who present in labor who are untested and whose HIV status is unknown.
Why screening is important
A person living with HIV often experiences no symptoms, feels well, and appears healthy. Many people are unaware of their positive status.
What the screening is
A doctor can test for HIV using a specific blood test. A positive result means that they have detected HIV antibody in the bloodstream. The blood is re-tested before a positive result is given.
The Women’s Preventive Services Initiative recommends prevention education and risk assessment for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection in adolescents and women at least annually throughout the lifespan. All women should be tested for HIV at least once during their lifetime. Additional screening should be based on risk, and screening annually or more often may be appropriate for adolescents and women with an increased risk of HIV infection.
No cure for HIV infection currently exists. However, treatment can reduce risks for clinical progression, complications or death from the disease, and disease transmission.
If you have HIV, there are many actions you can take to prevent transmitting it to others. The most important is taking HIV medicine (called antiretroviral therapy, or ART) as prescribed. If you take HIV medicine as prescribed and get and keep an undetectable viral load (or stay virally suppressed), you can stay healthy and have effectively no risk of transmitting HIV to an HIV-negative sex partner.
Infections that caused minimal or no health problems before the development of AIDS might pose a serious health risk once the condition has weakened the immune system. Medical professionals refer to these as opportunistic infections (OIs).
Aside from managing HIV viral load with medications, a person who lives with the disease must take precautions, including the following steps:
- Wear condoms to prevent other STIs.
- Receive vaccinations for potential OIs. Discuss these with your primary care physician.
- Understand the germs in your surrounding environment that could lead to an OI. A pet cat, for example, could be a source of toxoplasmosis. Limit exposure and take precautions, such as wearing protective gloves while changing litter
- Avoid foods that are at risk of contamination, such as undercooked eggs, unpasteurized dairy and fruit juice, or raw seed sprouts.
- Do not drink water straight from a lake or river or tap water in certain foreign countries. Drink bottled water or use water filters.
- Ask your doctor about work, home, and vacation activities to limit exposure to potential OIs.