Basic Facts about HIV and AIDS

What Is HIV?

HIV stands for the ‘Human Immunodeficiency Virus’. HIV is a virus that infects the cells of living organisms (i.e. the human body) as it replicates itself within those cells. Over time without medication, the virus damages the cells, making the infected person's immune system weak.

How Is HIV Transmitted?

The virus can spread from one person to another through the exchange of bodily fluids during sex (semen, cum, precum, ejaculate, vaginal fluids, blood, menstrual blood). A second main way the virus can spread is from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. A third main way the virus can spread is by using the needle of someone who is infected with HIV to inject drugs. Unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected person is extremely risky behaviour because the virus that is present in an infected person’s sexual fluids can be passed directly into the body of their partner through unprotected vaginal, anal sex and oral sex.i

For more information on HIV transmission, check out these questions and answers and this myth-busting factsheet.

Print and share this Aidsmap infographic of ways HIV can and cannot be transmitted

The Difference Between HIV and AIDS:

  • HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) making it difficult for the body to fight of infectious diseases.ii
  • When a person is diagnosed with HIV their immune system becomes weak and unable to fight off viruses. Someone who is diagnosed with HIV is said to be ‘HIV positive’.
  • HIV attacks the white blood cells called CD4 lymphocytes (also called “T cells”). Once the white blood cell count decreases to below 200 (the average person’s CD4 count is between 600 and 1,200) then the immune system becomes severely weakened and is unable to fight off even the most minor infections or viruses like common colds.iii
  • HIV and AIDS are two ways of describing the same illness at different degrees of its development. AIDS is condition that develops after HIV has done a significant amount of damage to the immune system, making it weak and unable to fight off germs.iv AIDS is therefore an advanced stage of HIV; a person who is HIV positive does not necessarily have AIDS, but a person who has AIDS is HIV positive.v

Stages that Mark the Progression of HIV:

There are four progressive stages of HIV after the initial infection. The stages are all marked by specific symptoms.

  • Stage 1: Primary HIV infection marks the transmission of HIV from one person to another. The virus begins to multiply at very high rate (10,000,000,000 virions per day) in the body as the white blood cells (CD4) get destroyed. These cells are crucial to fighting off infectious diseases in the body since CD4 cells are the ones that instruct other cells to fight infections caused by germs, like HIV. By destroying these cells HIV breaks down the defence of the immune system to fight viruses. Symptoms that may characterize this first stage include flu-like signs such as a fever, soar throat, swollen glands and coughs. These signs can last a few weeks. However, only some 20% of people will go to see a doctor when experiencing these symptoms, making it harder for doctors to diagnose patients with HIV during this first
  • Stage 2: Asymptomatic chronic infection is the next stage in the progression of HIV. During this stage there are no symptoms and people usually don’t feel sick. However, the virus continues to destroy the immune system rapidly as HIV becomes harder to treat. This stage usually lasts several years, therefore the sooner HIV is detected the sooner treatment can be started, prolonging the stages of development so that people can live longer and healthier lives.
  • Stage 3: Symptomatic HIV infection is the following stage, during which the body’s immune system is too weak to fight infections that it could normally resist easily. The body becomes victim to opportunistic infections like “candidiasis” which is fungal infection of the mount, throat or vagina and/or “cytomelgalovirus” (CMV) which is a viral infection that causes eye disease that can lead to blindness and “mycobacterium avium complex” (MAC), a bacterial infection that can cause recurring fevers, problems with digestion and serious weight loss among other things.vii
  • Stage 4: Advanced HIV infection also has many of the same symptoms as the third stage. It is characterized by advanced HIV infection where the immune system is extremely weak and opportunistic infections, tumours, wasting (loss of body weight that is not voluntary) and neurological complications are experienced. viii

Is There a Cure for HIV and AIDS?

There is no cure for HIV and AIDS. There are some drugs that can slow down the progression of the virus so that a person may stay healthier for a longer time, however, these drugs cannot cure the disease. Once a person has been infected with HIV they will have it for the rest of their lives.

How to Protect Yourself if You Have Sex:

By practicing “safe sex” the possibility of contracting HIV and AIDS is greatly reduced. Having safe sex means making sure that semen, vaginal fluids or blood that is infected with HIV does not get into your body.

In Order to Practice Safe Sex it is Important to Correctly Use:

  • A latex, polyurethane, or a female condom, every time that you have vaginal or anal sex.
  • A condom or dental dam each time you have oral sex. A dental dam is a piece of latex used to cover the vagina or anus
  • Water based lubricants with latex condoms. Do not use oil-based lubricants like Vaseline because they may weaken a latex condom and cause it to break.ix

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