The Basics of HIV/AIDS
Looking for basic information about HIV/AIDS? We've got answers to the most commonly asked questions. Our answers are based in scientific research, so you can trust what you read here. Looking for something not covered on this page? Check out our other HIV/AIDS information pages, or give us a call at 1-800-235-2331.
- What are HIV and AIDS?
- How does HIV affect the body?
- How is HIV transmitted?
- How is HIV treated?
- What if I have more questions?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is a virus that takes over certain immune system cells to make many copies of itself. HIV causes slow but constant damage to the immune system.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is the condition diagnosed when there are a group of related symptoms that are caused by advanced HIV infection or when someone has less than 200 CD4 cells (immune cells). AIDS makes the body vulnerable to life-threatening illnesses called opportunistic infections.
Normally, the human immune system is the body’s protection against bacteria, viruses, etc. It acts like a coat of armor. When HIV enters the body, it starts poking holes in the armor. Eventually, the armor becomes very weak and unable to protect the body. Once the armor is very weak or is gone, the person is said to have AIDS.
An AIDS diagnosis is generally made when either the body's protective T-cells drop below a certain level, or the HIV-positive individual begins to experience opportunistic infections. An opportunistic infection is an infection that would not be life-threatening to an otherwise healthy person. Oftentimes, it's these infections that are the cause of illness or death in HIV-positive individuals -- not the virus itself. If people do not get any treatment for HIV, it takes an average of 8-10 years to progress from HIV to AIDS.
HIV is transmitted through four body fluids: blood, semen (and precum), vaginal fluids, and breast milk.
In order to pass HIV from one person to another, HIV-infected fluid from one person needs to get into the bloodstream of another person. Activities like sharing needles or having unprotected anal or vaginal sex are the most common ways to transmit HIV from one person to another. Using clean needles and condoms during anal and vaginal sex are VERY effective ways to prevent transmission. HIV can also be passed from mother to infant before or during delivery or while breastfeeding, however with regular prenatal care, this can be prevented.
While there is still no cure or vaccine for HIV, there are highly effective treatment options if someone is infected with HIV. These treatments are medically safe and have enabled people living with HIV to lead longer and healthier lives.
Most people who are taking HIV treatments are taking two or more medications at the same time. This is called Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART). It may also be called combination therapy or “the cocktail.” Combination therapy has been found most effective at combating HIV by attacking the virus in many different ways. There are currently three main classes of medications that are used to treat HIV:
- Entry Inhibitors
- Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (Nucleoside, Non-Nucleoside, Nucleotide)
- Protease Inhibitors
If you have specific questions regarding medications, side effects, interactions, etc. please contact our HIV Health Library at 617-450-1432 or visit the HIV Health Library page.
If you or anyone you know has any questions about HIV/AIDS or STIs, the AIDS Action Hotline is a great resource! The Hotline is open Monday-Thursday, 9am-8pm, and Friday, 9am-5pm.
To reach the HIV Hotline, call 1-800-235-2331.