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Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks and destroys the body’s immune system by killing a specific type of white blood cell known as the CD4 cell (or helper T-cell).
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the most advanced stage of HIV. AIDS happens when HIV has badly damaged the immune system, a process that may take years. The loss of CD4 cells leads to a weakened immune system, which allows infections and cancers to occur that usually don’t affect healthy people. These are called opportunistic infections and opportunistic cancers.
As treatment with anti-retroviral therapy (ART) has become available, fewer people living with HIV (PLWH) are developing AIDS. In fact, PLWH can live long and healthy lives by taking ART.
HIV can spread when an uninfected person is exposed to blood or certain body fluids (semen, vaginal secretions, or breast milk) from an infected person. There are several possible routes of HIV transmission (spread):
HIV is NOT spread:
With new precautions and careful testing at blood banks, the risk of HIV spread through transfusions of blood and blood products has been almost eliminated. There is a 1 in 2 million chance of being infected with HIV through a blood transfusion in the United States.
Infection through organ transplants from HIV-infected donors is very rare, because donor organs and tissues are thoroughly tested for HIV before transplant.
HIV infection may not cause symptoms for years, and a person can have HIV for a long time and not know it. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends HIV testing at least once for everyone between the ages of 13 and 64. However, HIV testing is often not done unless you have certain medical problems, are pregnant, or ask to be tested.
If you have any doubt about your HIV status, talk with your doctor or visit a health department clinic where testing is offered. To have the HIV test done without giving your name and address (anonymous testing), you can buy a home collection kit at the drugstore or online or go to an anonymous testing site. Some state health departments also offer anonymous HIV tests.
HIV testing is covered by insurance without a co-pay. If you don’t have insurance, look for a testing site that provides free tests.
HIV is often diagnosed after the development of opportunistic infections or cancer. But with testing, HIV infection can be diagnosed and treatment can be started before a person gets seriously ill.
HIV is a type of virus called a retrovirus. Treatment for HIV is known as anti-retroviral therapy or ART. Treatment for HIV often uses 3 or more ART drugs. These medications are taken daily to help keep the virus from making more copies of itself (reproducing).
The combination of anti-HIV drugs varies with each person depending on:
Different combinations might be tried. Over time the ART medications may need to be changed.
Once a person has been diagnosed with HIV, ART should start as soon as possible. HIV infections cannot be cured, but they can be managed long term with ART. By taking ART regularly, PLWH can have a normal life span and people with AIDS can live longer.
The main goal of ART is to lower the amount of HIV in a person’s blood. This can reduce damage to the immune system and decrease the risk of opportunistic infections, cancers, and AIDS. Reducing the amount of HIV also greatly lowers the risk of spread.
It is important that a PLWH takes their ART as prescribed to keep their HIV blood levels as low as possible. This improves a person’s quality of life and lowers the chances of serious illnesses and long-term effects of HIV.
Other measures that can be taken to support the immune system involve good self-care, such as:
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
National Institutes of Health. Understanding HIV. Hivinfo.nih.gov. Accessed at https://hivinfo.nih.gov/understanding-hiv on October 21, 2021.
Panel on Treatment of HIV During Pregnancy and Prevention of Perinatal Transmission. Recommendations for Use of Antiretroviral Drugs in Transmission in the United States. Available at LINK. Accessed at https://clinicalinfo.hiv.gov/sites/default/files/guidelines/documents/Perinatal_GL.pdf on March 25, 2022.
Steele WR, Dodd RY, Notari EP, et al. HIV, HCV, and HBV incidence and residual risk in US blood donors before and after implementation of the 12-month deferral policy for men who have sex with men. Transfusion. 2021;61(3):839-850.
US Department of Health and Human Services. HIV Basics. Hiv.gov. Accessed at https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics on March 22, 2022.
Last Revised: March 28, 2022
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