NOTE: This page has not been updated to reflect recent medical advances. Check avert.org for up to date and straight forward information about HIV. However the information below, while general, is still relevant.
Information here is general in nature. You should always consult a health professional for health problems.
Things to know:
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
There have been occasional "miracle cures" in the press. Few, if any, last. If you suspect that you may have been exposed, or know that you have, you need professional medical help.
Getting the HIV virus will eventually lead to you having a group of symptoms or diseases caused by the breakdown of your own body's immune system. This condition is called a syndrome, the Acquired (you got it or acquired it from the HIV infection) Immune Deficiency (your immune system is now deficient and can't fight off other diseases) Syndrome, or AIDS.
So what is AIDS? It is when your body is at the point that it can no longer fight off infection from germs. Technically, no-one dies of AIDS itself. They die of one or more diseases that their body can't fight off any more. Often there are specific diseases that seem to attack people with an HIV infection that has gone on to become the condition of AIDS. Some of these are:
- a particular type of pneumonia called pneumocystis carinii
- Tuberculosis, a disease that affects the lungs and can also spread to lymph nodes, kidneys, bones, joints, and other parts of the body. Tuberculosis is contagious through coughing and sneezing, though usually a prolonged time near the patient is necessary to contract Tuberculosis.
- Karposi's Sarcoma, a skin cancer that that is often identified with AIDS but can afffect anyone with a lowered immune system
- Meningitis, an infection and inflammation of the brain and spiral cord lining. Like Karposi's Sarcoma, it often strikes people with lowered immune systems. Meningitis is contagious through coughing and sneezing and through close contact.
- Cervical cancer in women
AIDS's origin is not known for sure, though there are plenty of rumours and misinformation flying around, sometimes tinged with racism. One of the most likely - but unproven - is that the virus mutated and crossed over from monkeys into humans. The theory is that the virus developed over a long time in the monkeys but they were not harmed by it. Monkeys may have been eaten by humans who got exposed, most likely from blood to blood contact during the killing or butchering. There are similar concerns now about the so-called "Bird Flu ". Quite a few people have now died from being in close contact with the "bird flu" virus. Those people tend to live in backward (sanitation-wise) communities, who then slaughter infected birds, often chickens or ducks. Being exposed to the bird flu virus through blood, urine or feces, some people get sick because their immune system - in fact almost all humans' immune systems - have never seen this particular virus before and don't know how to defend against it. Most people who have contracted bird flu have died. Scientists are very worried that, like the HIV virus may have done, the bird flu virus may mutate once it gets into some humans, and then - having become a "human" virus - become contagious between humans.
There are millions of people around the world who are infected with the HIV virus and/or have AIDS. Africa has been particularly hard hit because of a combination of poor or down-right wrong "information" being used to "educate" the populace about how HIV is spread and a lack of access to advanced drugs that can improve health. Nothing can cure AIDS though.
You do not get HIV virus just by being near someone who has it. You do not have to be afraid of working with or living with a person who has HIV or AIDS. It is not passed on through ordinary day to day contact. You would have to have sexual contact, or have certain contact with an infected person's body fluids or share intravenous (in the blood) needles.
How do you get infected with HIV?
You can only get HIV virus by getting the bodily fluids of an infected person into your body. The fluids that carry enough HIV virus to infect someone are:
Semen (slang: “cum” or “come”)
male's pre-lubricating fluid (slang: "pre-cum" or "pre-come") which is the fluid that seeps out of a penis when a male is sexually aroused but before he ejaculates ("cums")
female's vaginal fluids
The ways to have infectious contact with these body fluids are:
Vaginal intercourse (penis in the vagina) which can involve the first four fluids
Oral sex (mouth to the other person's genitals) which can involve the first four fluids
Anal intercourse (penis in anus or "bum hole") which can involve semen, a male's
"pre-cum" (pre-lubricating fluid) and blood
Intravenous drug use (Intravenous means into the vein) which can transfer blood from an infected person directly into an uninfected person. Not only is the needle cause for concern, but any of the "works" that intravenous drug users use, including the syringe, spoons, filters and water that is shared can harbour the HIV virus long enough to transfer it to the person sharing. So even if you used your own needle and syringe, you could be potentially infected by sharing the spoon or other "cooking" equipment.
Blood transfusions (Blood, or course is the fluid involved. The supply of donated blood is much safer than it used to be in most parts of the world because donated blood is routinely tested)
Breastfeeding (breast milk can pass the HIV virus on to a baby)
Pregnant mother-to-baby (blood passes from the mother to the unborn baby.) Pregnant women with HIV can pass the virus on but it is more likely that they will not, (about a one in four chance that they will infect their baby) especially if they take a drug called Zidovudine, which greatly improves the odds of not infecting the baby. However, there are no guarantees and there will be a tricky balancing act of drug therapies as well as a Caesarean section delivery of the baby.
Body piercings, including ears, or tattoos (again, blood is the fluid)
There have been some rare cases where medical workers have been infected by accidentally getting stuck by infected needles, scalpels or other sharp objects that have HIV infected blood on them. Needle sticks in the medical profession are not that rare but HIV infection this way is. Usually an immediate preventative action will be taken called chemoprophylaxis is done to minimise the likelihood of infection. ("Prophylaxis" is just a fancy name for prevention.) Having a patient infected by a medical worker who is HIV positive would be extremely unlikely. Today, most health professionals wear protective gloves or masks or other devices to protect themselves and to protect their patients.
The two most common ways to contract the HIV virus are through sex with an infected person that is unprotected by a condom, and through sharing of needles used with intravenous drugs. According to The Underground Guide to Teenage Sexuality" (Michael Basso), unprotected sexual intercourse is responsible for 70% of HIV infections in the USA. Using a condom if you have sexual intercourse of any type (vaginal, anal or oral) will provide good protection against HIV, in most cases. What about the other cases? The condom can break, or it isn't used properly.
Sharing intravenous drug (including steroids) needles are responsible for about 25% of HIV infections. If you happen to be an intravenous drug user, besides the obvious bad effects of the drugs you are injecting inside your body, you run a high risk of getting the HIV virus if you share any part of your drug stuff (or "paraphernalia" or "gear"). If you are into intravenous drug usage try to find a local source of free, clean needles. There may be a needle exchange program in cities that have more enlightened and realistic politicians and health officials. If there is no official exchange program, phone your local health authorities and ask if they can help or have any recommendations. Use a clean needle every time and don't share it with even your closest friend. Ever. Not even once. Of course, don't use your friend's gear either. But we need to be realistic. Intravenous drug use occurs and it's a risk to the individuals and the wider community. You can get HIV through needles and pass it on to other people through sex.
If you absolutely must use intravenous drugs, some sites offer the advice to thoroughly clean your needle(s) and kit with full strength bleach (not diluted) for at least 30 seconds to kill any virus. While not an endorsement, this site has comprehensive instructions and cautions. It is important that you then rinse the full strength bleach well away with water, so you don't end up injecting any bleach into your veins. However, the several sites I checked all note that this advice seems to work well in a laboratory. How well it works in real life may be anyone's guess. There are no guarantees.
Here is an excellent site, AVERT.org for more information about HIV. It is straightforward and blunt.
Once you are infected, you can transmit the virus to other people even though you may have no symptoms.
I heard my cousin say his friend got AIDS from a toilet seat...can that be true?
HIV/AIDS is a really scary disease and it usually gets transmitted, among other ways, by a very popular method, sex. (Of course there are other ways, noted above) And a lot of young people especially like to party and may make some less-than-smart choices. As well, HIV can be complicated to understand. So there have been a lot of myths and mistakes around HIV and AIDS. Many of them seem scary. Here is how you do NOT get HIV:
Casual contact. What does that mean? You can live with, work with, go to school with and hang out at the mall with HIV infected people. You can hug them and give them a kiss and brush their hair and share food. Sharing drinking glasses, cutlery, plates, pipes, bongs, cigarettes or joints will not result in HIV infection. However - and experts seem to disagree on this - those things generally should not be shared with anyone, HIV infected or not, because, though they are usually low risk, other diseases can be transmitted through saliva. Or not, depending on the expert! But why risk even a common cold?
Kiss someone with HIV? Small numbers of the HIV virus can be detected in an infected person's saliva and tears but there is not enough to infect another person. Casual kissing will not be a problem. Theoretically, if an infected person were giving deep, wet ("French" or "tongue") kisses and they had some infected blood in their mouth as well, there might be enough virus to infect you. AVERT.org notes one documented instance of that likely happening. But experts disagree on whether this is possible, impossible or only slightly possible. Best to keep your passionate kisses for someone who's been tested!
As well, you cannot get HIV from:
Using the same gym equipment
Going to the same school
Cats with Feline Immunodeficiency Syndrome (sometimes called Feline AIDS) or apes/monkeys with Simian Immunodeficiency Virus. These viruses simply are no threat to humans.
Needle sticks from needles found in public parks, on movie theatre seats, in vending machines etc....well this is extremely unlikely though the Centers for Disease Control admit that in extraordinarily rare circumstances it is theoretically possible, if the needle had viable (still live) HIV virus and had it in sufficient amounts to cause an infection. But think about it- it is rare that a needle stick injury in a medical setting results in an infection, where the source would be a live person with lots of viable HIV in their blood. Since the HIV virus is very fragile outside the body, once the blood had dried (and probably before) the virus would have died within minutes. There are a lot of myths and hoaxes about HIV. The CDC has some interesting reading here. FOLLOW UP THIS LINK
And (drum roll...) toilet seats are safe from HIV transmission
There are some "iff-y" situations that you may think about. There is some more interesting reading at AVERT.org
When AIDS first showed up in North America, there was wide spread mistrust and fear of anyone with the virus. So little was known about it that people with it were sometimes treated horribly. As well, since it first became noticed and wide-spread in groups of male homosexuals, it became known as the "Gay Disease" and many gay men in particular were double-outcasts in society. As the virus made its way into heterosexual groups through sex and through intravenous drug use, it took a long time for society in general to accept that AIDS no longer "only" attacked gay men. During that time, heterosexuals tended not to understand or believe that they could be at risk so HIV made its unwelcome entrance to the general population.
Fortunately, in many parts of the world we understand much better how HIV and AIDS work, though many places are still steeped in ignorance of the HIV facts. "Ignorance" simply means not knowing. We also know that we do not need to shun, or be afraid of people with AIDS. Someone with advanced AIDS may develop a disease like Tuberculosis or Meningitis for instance, which may need some precautions to be taken against the Tuberculosis or the Meningitis, not AIDS. As you learn more about HIV and AIDS, you'll be more confident about how to avoid exposure (Symptoms section is next) and you'll feel more confident about treating people with AIDS like normal people who could probably use an understanding friend or family member.
After first being infected, a person may have no symptoms for a long time. Sometimes they'll get what they may think of as just some kind of "flu". Such symptoms tend to be a fever, headache, a rash, sore throat, and swollen lymph glands. Since, if they get these "flu"-type symptoms, they'll usually happen between two to six weeks after they actually get infected, most people would not connect what they think is a regular "flu", to being infected with HIV.
Once you are infected, you can transmit the virus to other people even though you may have no symptoms.
You can remain symptom-free for many years. This is good news for you, bad news for any people you may also infect because you didn't know you were infected. As the HIV virus starts to multiply more and destroy your "helper T cells", you will start to get early symptoms like these.
Swollen lymph nodes. (The Mayo Clinic has more information about Lymph Nodes or Lymph Glands here. Note though that other conditions can give you swollen lymph nodes too.)
Cough and shortness of breath
These symptoms, of course, are common to your ordinary run-of-the-mill "flu" though, so often people don't associated such symptoms shortly after exposure to the possibility of HIV exposure.
"T-cells" or "T4 Cells", (also called CD4 Cells, or T-lymphocytes, pronounced: "Tee-LIM-fo-sites" or CD-4 or Helper T cells) are the white blood cells that co-ordinate your entire immune system.
Approximately ten years after infection, the body's immune system has been so damaged, or "compromised", that it can no longer fight off many infections that otherwise you might not even know you had gotten! There is a medical definition of AIDS, the condition itself, which marks it as different from just being infected with HIV (or "HIV positive"). If your body starts getting infections that are "opportunistic", then you are in the AIDS phase. "Opportunistic" basically means that the infection likely would not have had a chance to develop in you except that it had the luck, or opportunity, to enter the body of a person who can no longer fight off diseases. Also, if your T4 cell count is 200 or less, you are in the AIDS phase. The normal count is between 600 and 1,000 per cubic millimetre (less than a drop) of blood.
These are the typical symptoms after you have entered the AIDS stage. There can be other diseases that have the opportunity to attack your body, but these are common:
Shaking chills or
100 F/ 38 C or higher fever for weeks
Dry cough and shortness of breath
Chronic (frequently recurring or constant) diarrhea
Persistent white spots or unusual lesions (an infected patch of skin) on your tongue or in your mouth
Blurred and distorted vision
At some point you will experience these symptoms:
Persistent, unexplained fatigue. You may also experience headaches and dizzyness/light-headedness
Weight loss of at least 10 pounds that is not due to diet or exercise
Thick, whiteish coating of the tongue or mouth, sometimes with a sore throat. This is called "Thrush" and is a yeast infection that has attached itself to you.
Purplish or other discoloured growths on the skin or inside the mouth
Unexplained bleeding from skin growths, from mucous membranes or from any body cavity (opening)
Soaking night sweats
100 F/ 38 C or higher fever for weeks for several weeks
Swelling or hardening of lymph glands located in your throat, armpit, or groin, for three months or longer. Lymph nodes (or glands) are all over your body. The ones you are likely most familiar with are under your chin, below your ears.
Chronic ( frequently recurring or constant) diarrhea that lasts a long time
Unusual and frequent skin rashes
Continued dry cough and worsening shortness of breath
Numbness or pain in hands or feet, lost muscle control , paralysis or loss of muscle strength
Change in personality, mental deterioration
AIDS will often result in several cancers growing, some of which are identified mainly with AIDS, especially Kaposi's sarcoma, cervical cancer and lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes)