This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.
HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is a sexually transmitted infection that weakens the immune system, making it easier for you to get sick. There is no cure for HIV yet, but there are many treatment options that can help you stay healthy and lower your chance of spreading the virus. When left untreated, HIV can lead to AIDS or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome; AIDS is often considered as 'late-stage HIV.' You cannot get AIDS without an HIV infection, but not everyone who is infected with HIV gets AIDS.
How can you get HIV?
- Blood transfusions
- Sharing needles or syringes
- Through unprotected sexual intercourse (vaginal or anal)
- By getting tattoos or piercings with HIV-contaminated equipment
- Contact with HIV-infected blood, bodily fluids (semen or vaginal secretions) when you have scrapes, cuts, or open sores on your body
- Perinatal transfusion - when a mother passes the virus to her baby through birth/delivery, breastfeeding, and pregnancy
HIV is not spread by:
- Insect bites
- Donating blood
- Through water and food
- Through surfaces/objects that have been in contact with HIV, such as toilet seats, chairs, dishes, doors, etc.
- Saliva, tears, and sweat that have not been contaminated with HIV
- Through the air, sneezing, coughing, or breathing the same air as an infected person
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What are the early signs of an HIV infection?
HIV affects each person differently; this is why it is crucial to get tested if you are sexually active, have multiple sexual partners, share needles, or have come in contact with someone with HIV. HIV testing should be done at least once yearly as part of your routine health check-up.
Most people infected with HIV experience flu-like symptoms within 2-6 weeks after the initial infection. Some of the early signs and symptoms are:
- Rash: most people with HIV will develop skin issues or rashes; these rashes may appear as red or brownish spots.
- You may also experience headaches, chills, fever, and a lack of energy.
- Sore throat: a very common sign during the initial stage of HIV infection and can last a few days to even months
- Muscle aches that are similar to when you have the flu and can happen during the first few weeks of infection.
- Mouth sores that can be painful - often appear on the tongue or lips and look cream-colored.
- Swollen lymph nodes, usually in the neck area - often one of the first signs of an HIV infection, can last for several months.
- Some people may also experience night sweats as their bodies try to fight off the infection.
How can you prevent HIV?
- Do not share needles.
- Practice abstinence/do not have sex.
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
- Use condoms properly when you have sex.
- Do not engage in risky/daring sexual behaviors.
- Get regular STI testing and complete treatment.
- Talk to your doctor about PrEp, an HIV prevention option that can reduce your chance of getting HIV.
When should you talk to a doctor?
If you are at risk of contracting the virus or know that you have been infected with HIV, see a healthcare provider as soon as possible.