Center for Young Women's Health




  • HIV and AIDS are not the same thing.
  • HIV is a virus that can lead to AIDS if untreated.
  • HIV is spread through unprotected sex and sharing needles.
  • There is no cure for HIV, but it can be treated.

In the past HIV/AIDS was considered to be a deadly disease. Medical research has helped doctors understand HIV and improve available treatments. HIV/AIDS can now be treated with medicines, although chronic infections are still a serious problem. Read on to learn more about the ways HIV is spread, how it is diagnosed, how it is treated, but more importantly, how you can protect yourself from getting infected with HIV.


What are HIV and AIDS?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is the virus which, when untreated, becomes AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The virus attacks the body's immune system, especially white blood cells called CD-4 cells (also called “T-cells”). Your immune system is what fights against infections to keep your body healthy and T-cells play a key role in keeping a person protected from infections. If your immune system is weakened, it can't protect your body and you can easily get sick.


Who gets HIV/AIDS?

As the saying goes, “HIV does not discriminate.” Anyone who puts themselves at risk for HIV by having unprotected sex (having sex without a condom) and/or by sharing needles and syringes with an infected person, is at risk for getting the HIV virus. Also, babies can be born with the virus if their mother is infected. In the past, people also got infected from unscreened blood transfusions, but today donated blood is tested for the HIV virus.


Does everyone who has HIV get AIDS?

Not all people with HIV get AIDS. However, if a person’s T-Cell numbers drop and the amount of virus in the blood stream rises (viral load), the immune system can become too weak to fight off infections, and they are considered to have AIDS. It is then possible to get sick with diseases that do not usually affect other people. One of these diseases is Kaposi Sarcoma (KS), a rare type of skin cancer. Another is a type of pneumonia called Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia (PCP). These diseases can be treated and a person’s T-Cells and viral load can return to healthier levels with the right types of medication.


How is HIV spread?

HIV is spread from: an infected person to another person through vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Infected mothers can pass the HIV virus to their babies, during birth and also during breastfeeding. HIV is also spread when sharing needles or syringes with an infected person.


The HIV virus is found in and can be passed through four bodily fluids: semen, vaginal fluids, blood, and breast milk. The most common ways these infected fluids are passed into another person’s bloodstream is by:

HIV is not spread through touching, hugging, or shaking hands with an infected person. It is not spread by coughing, sneezing, sharing glasses and dishes, touching toilets or doorknobs. Pets and biting insects, like mosquitoes, do not spread the virus. Donating blood does not spread HIV either. This is because a new needle is used for each donor, so you never come in contact with another person's blood.


What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?

Some people get an illness within 6 weeks of HIV infection with the following symptoms:

Since these symptoms are similar to the flu, HIV may go unnoticed. Therefore, it is important to tell your health care provider if you have unprotected sex and/or if you share needles. That’s a good reason to get tested for HIV!


When HIV becomes AIDS, a person may have any of the following symptoms:

What should I do if I think I have HIV or AIDS?

If you think you are infected with HIV, or have been exposed to someone whom you suspect or know to be HIV positive, or if you have symptoms, get tested and make an appointment with your health care provider right away. The earlier you get tested the sooner you can start medicine to control the virus (if you are positive). Getting treated early can slow down the progress of the HIV infection and may even prevent you from getting AIDS. Knowing if you are HIV positive or not will help you make decisions about protecting yourself and others.


How is HIV diagnosed?

HIV is diagnosed using three main tests:

Standard blood test - (EIA or ELISA Tests) This type of blood test takes about 2 weeks to get the results. Blood is drawn once from the arm.
Western Blot - If the Standard blood test is positive for HIV antibodies, the Western blot test is done. If this test comes back positive, a person has HIV.
Rapid tests (fingerstick and oral tests) - Both tests take about 20 minutes to get the results
  1. Blood test is a fingerstick; a small amount of blood is taken from the tip of the finger and mixed in a solution.
  2. Oral test - a small amount of saliva from a person’s mouth is obtained using a cotton swab that looks like a toothbrush.

If either rapid test is positive, the Western blot test is done to confirm that the person is HIV positive.


There is another test available for home use:

What does a “false negative” test result mean?

If you are tested too soon after being exposed to HIV, it is possible that you can get a “false negative”. This is because it can take 12 weeks or longer from the time of exposure for the HIV test to become positive. It is usually recommended that you have the test repeated after 3 months to make sure that you are truly negative. It is important to know that a “reactive” or a “positive” test result is not a diagnosis. Only a doctor can diagnose HIV.


What about sex partners?

If you have HIV, you’ll need to tell anyone that you have ever had sex with or anyone you have ever shared needles with so they can get tested, AND treated as soon as possible. If you feel that you can't tell these people, then talk to your health care provider. They can let people know confidentially that they may have been exposed.


How is HIV/AIDS treated?

Right now, there is no cure for HIV infection or AIDS. It is a chronic illness and the virus stays in your body for the rest of your life. The virus has been treated with a combination of three different drugs which together work to keep the virus quiet so the immune system can stay strong. People with HIV must take medication at specific times and never miss doses. Following your doctor’s treatment plan is extremely important. Your health care provider may also tell you to eat healthy foods, exercise, and lower any stress in your life.


How can I protect myself from getting HIV?

Many doctor’s offices, hospitals, and clinics offer HIV testing at a low cost or for free. If your test is positive, you most likely will feel scared. Talk with your health care provider and HIV counselor as soon as possible, so you can discuss treatment. Early treatment generally improves a person’s chance at living a healthy life. There are also safe environments such as support groups to get help you deal with your feelings, and resources to answer your questions.


Written and reviewed by the CYWH Staff at Boston Children's Hospital


Updated: 6/9/2011


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