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Facts About Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

Back to 2002 Curriculum. 

What Is HIV?

  • HIV us the virus that causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). People who have HIV in their bodies have HIV infection, or HIV.

  • HIV is a disease with many stages. People with HIV may have no symptoms, a few symptoms or many serious symptoms.

  • People can have HIV for many years without feeling or looking sick. They may not even know they are infected. But they can still pass the virus on to others.

  • Over time, HIV damages the body's immune system. The immune system protects the body from disease.

  • When the immune system gets very weak, other diseases and infections can enter the body. This stage of HIV is called AIDS.

How Do People Get HIV?

  • HIV lives in semen, vaginal fluids, blood and breast milk of a person with HIV. It can be passed from one person to another through these infected fluids.

  • HIV can be passed during vaginal, oral or anal sex.

  • HIV can be passed while sharing needles and equipment to inject drugs.

  • HIV can be passed by needles used for tattoos and piercing or to inject vitamins or steroids.

  • Health workers caring for people with HIV can get HIV from needle-stick injuries.

  • HIV can be passed from a mother to her baby during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.

  • Before 1985, some people got HIV from infected blood transfusions. Now the blood supply in the United States is tested. So the chances of getting HIV this way are very, very small.

HIV is not passed by:  

  • Donating blood
  • Hugging, dry kissing or sharing food
  • Telephones, toilet seats, towels or eating utensils
  • Tears, saliva, sweat or urine
  • Mosquitoes or other insects

You are at risk if you:  

  • Have had sex with a man or woman who has had other partners.
  • Have shared injection drug needles, or had sex with someone who has.
  • Had a blood transfusion before 1985, when HIV testing began, or have had sex with someone who did.

You are probably not at risk if you:  

  • Have had no sex, or have been monogamous (had sex only with one partner who doesn't have HIV and who only has sex with you).
  • Have not shared needles to inject drugs or for any other reason, and have not had sex with anyone who has.
  • Did not receive a blood transfusion or any blood products before 1985.
  • The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to have an HIV test.

The HIV Test:

  • The HIV test looks for HIV antibodies in your body.
  • If you have antibodies, your test results will be positive. This means you are infected with HIV.
  • If you don't have antibodies, your test will be negative. This means one of two things:
    • You don't have HIV
    • You have been infected with HIV, but your body hasn't made antibodies yet

What Happens in Testing?

  • A counselor explains the test and answers your questions.
  • A health care worker will take a little blood from your arm, take cells from the inside of your cheek with a cotton swab, or ask for a urine sample.
  • The sample is sent to a lab.
  • In about 2 weeks, you go back to get the results.
  • Some sites offer a quick test using a blood sample. Results are available in a few minutes.
  • Most test centers provide counseling to help you understand what the results mean and learn how to prevent the spread of HIV

Types of Testing

Anonymous testing means you are the only one who will know your test result. You use a code name or number to get your result. (There is no way to trace your name, address or social security number with this code.)

Confidential testing means your name is known and your test result is put into your medical record. (In general, your result cannot be shared without your OK. But you should ask who has access to your medical record before taking the test)

After a Positive Test

  • A positive test means you are infected with HIV. Positive results are almost 100% accurate.
  • If you test HIV positive, find a health care provider who knows about HIV right away. Early treatment can help you stay healthy and can help slow the progress of the disease.
  • Services for people with HIV include help with health care, income, food and legal services.

After a Negative Test

  • A negative test means no HIV antibodies were in your body at the time of the test.
  • This may mean you are not infected with HIV.
  • A negative test might also mean you are infected, but your body has not made HIV antibodies yet.
  • Get tested again at least 3 months after any risky behavior.

Home Testing Kits HIV antibody home testing kits can be purchased at a pharmacy.

Written by Nora Krantzler, PhD, MPH with slight modifications.