What is HIV?

HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus. It is the virus that can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. CDC estimates that about 56,000 people in the United States contracted HIV in 2006.

HIV damages a person’s body by destroying specific blood cells, called CD4+ T cells, which are crucial to helping the body fight diseases.

HIV is spread primarily by:

  • Not using a condom when having sex with a person who has HIV. All unprotected sex with someone who has HIV contains some risk. However:
    • Unprotected anal sex is riskier than unprotected vaginal sex.
    • Among men who have sex with other men, unprotected receptive anal sex is riskier than unprotected insertive anal sex.
  • Having multiple sex partners or the presence of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can increase the risk of infection during sex. Unprotected oral sex can also be a risk for HIV transmission, but it is a much lower risk than anal or vaginal sex.
  • Sharing needles, syringes, rinse water, or other equipment used to prepare illicit drugs for injection.
  • Being born to an infected mother—HIV can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breast-feeding.



What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.  Acquired – means that the disease is not hereditary but develops after birth from contact with a disease-causing agent (in this case, HIV).  Immunodeficiency – means that the disease is characterized by a weakening of the immune system.  Syndrome – refers to a group of symptoms that indicate or characterize a disease. In the case of AIDS, this can include the development of certain infections and/or cancers, as well as a decrease in the number of certain specific blood cells, called CD4+ T cells, which are crucial to helping the body fight disease.

Before the development of certain medications, people with HIV could progress to AIDS in just a few years. Currently, people can live much longer - even decades - with HIV before they develop AIDS. This is because of “highly active” combinations of medications that were introduced in the mid 1990s.

A diagnosis of AIDS is made by a physician using specific clinical or laboratory standards.


How long does it take for HIV to cause AIDS?

Prior to 1996, scientists estimated that about half the people with HIV would develop AIDS within 10 years after becoming infected. This time varied greatly from person to person and depended on many factors, including a person's health status and their health-related behaviors.

Since 1996, the introduction of powerful antiretroviral therapies has dramatically changed the progression time between HIV infection and the development of AIDS. There are also other medical treatments that can prevent or cure some of the illnesses associated with AIDS, though the treatments do not cure AIDS itself. Because of these advances in drug therapies and other medical treatments, estimates of how many people will develop AIDS and how soon are being recalculated, revised, or are currently under study.

As with other diseases, early detection of infection allows for more options for treatment and preventative health care.


How can I tell if I’m infected with HIV?

The only way to know if you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection. You cannot rely on symptoms to know whether or not you are infected. Many people who are infected with HIV do not have any symptoms at all for 10 years or more.

The following may be warning signs of advanced HIV infection:

  • rapid weight loss
  • dry cough
  • recurring fever or profuse night sweats
  • profound and unexplained fatigue
  • swollen lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck
  • diarrhea that lasts for more than a week
  • white spots or unusual blemishes on the tongue, in the mouth, or in the throat
  • pneumonia
  • red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
  • memory loss, depression, and other neurological disorders

However, no one should assume they are infected if they have any of these symptoms. Each of these symptoms can be related to other illnesses. Again, the only way to determine whether you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection. For information on where to find an HIV testing site, visit the National HIV Testing Resources Web siteLink Leaves the DHAP Internet Site or call CDC-INFO 8A-8P (EST) M-F. Closed weekends and major federal holidays at 1-800-CDC-INFO (232-4636), 1-888-232-6348 (TTY), in English, en Español. These resources are confidential. You can also ask your health care provider to give you an HIV test.

You also cannot rely on symptoms to establish that a person has AIDS. The symptoms of AIDS are similar to the symptoms of many other illnesses. AIDS is a medical diagnosis made by a doctor based on specific criteria established by the CDC. For more information refer to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report “1993 Revised Classification System for HIV Infection and Expanded Surveillance Case Definition for AIDS Among Adolescents and Adults”.

If you would like more information or have personal concerns, call CDC-INFO 8A-8P (EST) M-F. Closed weekends and major federal holidays at 1-800-CDC- INFO (232-4636), 1-888-232-6348 (TTY), in English, en Español.

FDA Office of Special Health Issues (FREE)

FDA HIV/AIDS Info for Consumers

Get Information About:

  • HIV/AIDS Related Therapies
  • Clinical Trials and Drug Development
  • What’s New at FDA in HIV/AIDS
  • Health Fraud Task Force
  • Barrier Products
  • HIV Testing
  • Blood Donor Deferral
  • Timeline/History
  • HIV Related Advisory Committees
  • Eating Defensively: Food Safety Advice for Persons with AIDS


Up-to-date information about the risks and side effects for each HIV/AIDS drug (FREE):

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AIDS info (FREE) 

US Department of Health and Human Services
Phone: 1-800-448-0440
TTY/TTD: 888-480-3739

Receive information on:

  • Guidelines for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, reviewed by experts in the field
  • Fact sheets on HIV/AIDS-related drugs
  • Find research studies on drugs, vaccines, and other new or existing treatmens for HIV/AIDS
  • Information on preventative and therapeutic HIV vaccine researchFind resources on HIV/AIDS-related topics
  • And more AIDS info


US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (FREE)

Department of Health and Human Services
Phones: 1-800-232-4636
TTY/TTD:  1-888-232-6348

Receive information on topics ranging from:

  • African Americans
  • Basic Information
  • Funding
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  • Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM)
  • Statistics and Surveillance
  • Testing
  • Women
  • And More Topics


Resources can be obtained in many different formats including:

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