Reviewed by Ruthann Cunningham, MD., July 10, 2017

What is HIV? Is it the same as AIDS?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that weakens the immune system making it harder to fight off infections. While HIV causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), people who test positive for HIV do not necessarily have AIDS. It's possible to have HIV for years and not have any symptoms. The only way to know is to get tested. With medication, a healthy lifestyle and regular health care, people can be infected with HIV and maintain a good quality of life for a long time. According to the CDC, about 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV. About 250,000 people have HIV and don’t know it because they haven’t any symptoms and haven’t been tested.

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Who is at risk for HIV?

Any sexually active person can get HIV. Most people get the virus by having sex with or sharing needles with an infected person. Babies can be born with HIV if their mother is infected. HIV is not transmitted by saliva, casual kissing or toilet seats. Nor can you get it from sharing towels or shaking hands. It's not a "gay disease" or something that only affects young people. In fact, the highest number of newly acquired cases of HIV have been found in middle aged adults, ages 35 to 44.

Is there a cure or treatment for HIV?

Currently there is no vaccine to prevent HIV or a cure. However, HIV can be treated and people live long lives with the disease. Used in combination with one another, powerful antiretroviral medications can slow down the damage caused by the virus and stop the progression to AIDS. When working closely with a doctor and following their treatment plan carefully, people are now living with HIV longer than ever before.

What if I don't get it treated?

Left undiagnosed and untreated, HIV will damage the immune system and result in AIDS. People with AIDS are vulnerable to opportunistic infections caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi. They are also more susceptible to developing certain cancers. The time to progression of HIV to AIDS for any single patient is unknown. It is different for everyone. Detecting and treating HIV in pregnant women dramatically reduces the risk of transmission to an unborn baby. Early detection is the key to living with HIV and preventing it from spreading to others. There are new drugs that have slowed the progression time between HIV infection and the development of AIDS.

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