What is HIV?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that causes AIDS. HIV weakens a person’s normal guard against sickness by killing vital cells (called CD4 cells or T cells). These cells fight disease and infection. A cell is the smallest unit in the body that makes up tissue and organs. All living things are made of cells. Over time, HIV can kill so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off sickness and disease. When this happens, HIV infection leads to AIDS. Unlike some other viruses, the human body cannot get rid of HIV. There is no cure for HIV, that means that once you have HIV, you have it for life. But with proper health care, HIV can be controlled.

While there is no cure now, experts are working hard to find one. For now, HIV can be controlled with proper health care. Caring for HIV is often called antiretroviral therapy or ART. The ART meds can help people with HIV live longer and make it harder to give HIV to others. Today, someone with HIV can live a long time if they get health care early.

How can you get or give HIV?

Only a person who has HIV can pass on HIV. The HIV travels through their blood, semen (cum), pre-semen fluid (pre-cum), rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. HIV can spread to another person when these fluids with HIV touch an open cut or wound or the inside their rectum, vagina, penis, or mouth. Sharing needles used for drugs can also spread HIV.

Get tested and treated for other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Ask and help your sex partners to get tested and treated too. Get tested at least once a year if you are having sex with a lot of different people. Having other STDs raises your risk for getting or giving HIV. STDs can also be bad for your health if not treated.

Get tested. You can ask for an STD or HIV test from your primary care provider.

In the U.S., HIV is spread mainly by:

  • Having anal or vaginal sex with someone who has HIV without using a condom.
    • Anal sex is the highest-risk sex act. For the HIV-negative partner, receptive anal sex (bottoming) is riskier than anal sex (topping).
    • Vaginal sex is the second-highest-risk sex act
  • Not taking meds to stop or treat HIV.
  • Sharing needles or syringes, rinse water, or other tools (works) used for drugs with someone who has HIV. HIV can live in a used needle for up to 42 days based on how hot or cold the room may be.

Less often, HIV may be spread:

  • From mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or nursing. The risk can be high if a mother is living with HIV and not taking meds. Doctors and nurses urge testing all pregnant women for HIV. Starting HIV care right away has lowered the number of babies who are born with HIV.
  • By being stuck with an HIV-contaminated needle or other sharp object. This is a risk mainly for health care workers.

How do you protect yourself from getting HIV?

  • Use condoms the right way each time you have sex.
  • Don’t have any mouth, vaginal or anal sex.
  • Reduce the number of sex partners.
  • Never share needles.
  • You may be able to take newer meds such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

New Meds

What is PrEP?

Talk to your doctor about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Taking PrEP meds daily can put off HIV infection if you are at very high risk for HIV. PrEP should be used if you are HIV-negative and in a long term sexual relationship with an HIV-positive partner. PrEP should be used if you and your partner are dating other people.

PrEP should be used if you or your partner are HIV-negative, and you are a:

  • Gay or bisexual man who has had anal sex without a condom or has a STD (sexually transmitted disease) in the past 6 months.
  • Man who has sex with both men and women.
  • Heterosexual man or woman who does not always use condoms during sex with partners of unknown HIV status who are at very high risk of HIV infection (such as, people who use drugs with needles or women who have bisexual male partners).

What is PEP?

Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) means taking HIV meds after being likely exposed to HIV. This could help you from getting HIV. Talk to your doctor about PEP right away (within 3 days) if you’re HIV-negative or don’t know your HIV status and think you have been exposed to HIV during sex (such as, if the condom breaks), The sooner you start PEP, the better; each hour counts.

If you’re prescribed PEP, you’ll need to take it once or twice daily for 28 days. Keep in mind that your chance of getting HIV is lower if your HIV-positive partner is taking meds to treat HIV infection each day and his or her viral load stays in check.