What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is a retrovirus that infects cells of the human immune system and destroys or impairs their function. Specifically, HIV invades important cells in your body, uses those cells to make more copies of itself, and then destroys them. Infection with this virus results in the progressive depletion of the immune system, leading to immunodeficiency. If left untreated, HIV may lead to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) diagnosis.

What is AIDS?

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the late stage of HIV infection that occurs when the body’s immune system is badly damaged because of the virus. In the U.S., most people with HIV do not develop AIDS because taking HIV medication every day as prescribed stops the progression of the disease.

Without HIV medicine, people with AIDS typically survive about 3 years. Once someone has a dangerous opportunistic illness, life expectancy without treatment falls to about 1 year. HIV medicine can still help people at this stage of HIV infection, and it can even be lifesaving. But people to start ART soon after they get HIV experience more benefits – that’s why HIV testing is so important.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is transmitted when infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids, or breast milk enter another person's body. This most often occurs during unprotected sex or during injection drug use (when needles or other drug paraphernalia (“cottons” or “cookers”) are shared). Anyone who is infected with HIV can transmit it, whether or not they appear sick, have an AIDS diagnosis, or are taking effective treatment for their infection. Infected women who become pregnant can transmit HIV to their newborns and are much more likely to do so if they are not treated effectively.

HIV is spread in the following ways:

Most people who get HIV get it through anal or vaginal sex, or sharing needles, syringes, or other drug injection equipment.

Less common ways to get HIV are from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. However, the use of HIV medicines and other strategies have helped lower the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV to 1% or less in the United States.

Getting stuck with an HIV-contaminated needle or other sharp object is also a less common way to get HIV. This is a risk mainly for health care workers. The risk is very low.

HIV is spread only in extremely rare cases by:
  • Having oral sex.
  • Receiving blood transfusions, blood products, or organ/tissue transplants that are contaminated with HIV. The risk is extremely small these days because of rigorous testing of the U.S. blood supply and donated organs and tissues.
  • Being bitten by a person with HIV. There is no risk of transmission if the skin is not broken.
  • Contact between broken skin, wounds, or mucous membranes and HIV-infected blood or blood-contaminated body fluids.
  • Deep, open-mouthed kissing if both partners have sores or bleeding gums and blood form the HIV-positive partner gets into the bloodstream of the HIV-negative partner. HIV is not spread through the saliva.
  • Eating food that has been pre-chewed by a person with HIV. The only known cases are among infants.

HIV is not transmitted by:

HIV is not spread by:
  • Air or water.
  • Mosquitoes, ticks or other insects.
  • Saliva, tears, or sweat that is not mixed with the blood of a person with HIV.
  • Shaking hands; hugging; sharing toilets; sharing dishes, silverware, or drinking glasses; or engaging in closed-mouth or “social” kissing with a person with HIV.
  • Drinking fountains.
  • Other sexual activities that don’t involve the exchange of body fluids (for example, touching).
HIV can’t be passed through healthy, unbroken skin.

What is the HIV Antibody Test?

There are several types of HIV antibody tests used today. All are highly accurate at detecting HIV antibodies, specific proteins made in response to an HIV infection. After infection with HIV, however, it can take up to 3 months for HIV antibodies to develop. The City of Laredo Health Department offers three different types of HIV testing to include confirmation of HIV.

What are the symptoms of a new HIV infection?

Approximately 50-90% of people with new HIV infections have mild to severe "flu-like" symptoms approximately 2 weeks to 3 months after the HIV exposure. Not everyone will have the same symptoms. It depends on the person and what stage of the disease they are in.

Some people do not have any symptoms. In general, symptoms are not a reliable indicator of HIV infection. Many people with HIV infection do not experience symptoms for many years after infection. Likewise, many people with the symptoms listed below do not have HIV infection. The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. Do not rely on symptoms to tell whether you have HIV.

Below are the three stages of HIV and some symptoms people may experience.

Stage 1: Acute HIV Infection

Within 2 to 4 weeks after infection with HIV, about two-thirds of people will have a flu-like illness. This is the body’s natural response to HIV infection.

Flu-like symptoms can include:
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Rash
  • Night sweats
  • Muscle aches
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Mouth ulcers

These symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. But some people do not have any symptoms at all during this early stage of HIV.

Don’t assume you have HIV just because you have any of these symptoms—they can be similar to those caused by other illnesses. But if you think you may have been exposed to HIV, get an HIV test.

Stage 2: Clinical Latency

In this stage, the virus still multiplies, but at very low levels. People in this stage may not feel sick or have any symptoms. This stage is also called chronic HIV infection.

Without HIV treatment, people can stay in this stage for 10 or 15 years, but some move through this stage faster.

If you take HIV medicine every day, exactly as prescribed and get and keep an undetectable viral load, you can protect your health and have effectively no risk of transmitting HIV to your sexual partner(s).

But if your viral load is detectable, you can transmit HIV during this stage, even when you have no symptoms. It’s important to see your health care provider regularly to get your viral load checked.

Stage 3: AIDS

If you have HIV and you are not on HIV treatment, eventually the virus will weaken your body’s immune system and you will progress to AIDS. This is the late stage of HIV infection.

Symptoms of AIDS can include:
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Recurring fever or profuse night sweats
  • Extreme and unexplained tiredness
  • Prolonged swelling of the lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck
  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than a week
  • Sores of the mouth, anus, or genitals
  • Pneumonia
  • Red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
  • Memory loss, depression, and other neurologic disorders

Each of these symptoms can also be related to other illnesses. The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. If you are HIV-positive, a health care provider will diagnose if your HIV has progressed to stage 3 (AIDS) based on certain medical criteria.

Is there a cure for HIV and AIDS?

No, but, in recent years, medical providers have become much better at identifying, monitoring, and treating HIV infection and AIDS. In particular, drugs known as protease inhibitors -- when used in combination with other antiretroviral drugs -- may dramatically improve the health and quality of life for many people living with HIV/AIDS.

While there is not currently a cure or vaccine for HIV/AIDS, there are many things that people infected with HIV can do to stay healthy and live longer. The first step for anyone who has HIV infection is to see a knowledgeable medical provider. This provider will be able to assess and monitor the infection, and, if appropriate, prescribe antiretroviral medicines.

The benefits of early diagnosis and treatment of HIV/AIDS are important reasons for people at risk for HIV infection to learn their HIV antibody status through testing. For people not infected, but at increased risk of infection, it is important to get tested regularly (every 3-6 months) for HIV antibodies. One purpose of regular testing is to assure that those who are newly infected with HIV may be assessed and treated at the earliest possible opportunity. Another purpose is to minimize the chance of HIV transmission when people are newly infected and highly infectious.

What is the HIV Continuum of Care?

The HIV care continuum is a public health model that outlines the steps or stages that people with HIV go through from diagnosis to achieving and maintaining viral suppression (a very low or undetectable amount of HIV in the body).

The steps are:
  • Diagnosis of HIV infection
  • Linkage to HIV medical care
  • Receipt of HIV medical care
  • Retention in medical care
  • Achievement and maintenance of viral suppression

The HIV care continuum is useful both as an individual-level tool to assess care outcomes, as well as a population-level framework to analyze the proportion of people with HIV in a given community who are engaged in each successive step. This helps policymakers and service providers better pinpoint where gaps in services might exist and develop strategies to better support people with HIV to achieve the treatment goal of viral suppression.

Supporting people with HIV to move through the steps of the continuum to achieve and maintain viral suppression is critical. There are important health benefits to getting the viral load as low as possible: people living with HIV who get and keep an undetectable viral load can live long, healthy lives. There is also a major prevention benefit: people with HIV who take HIV medicine daily as prescribed and get and keep an undetectable viral load have effectively no risk of transmitting HIV to their HIV-negative sexual partners.