Table of contents

What is HIV?
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. This is the virus that causes AIDS. HIV is different from most other viruses because it attacks the immune system. The immune system gives our bodies the ability to fight infections. HIV finds and destroys a type of white blood cell (T cells or CD4 cells) that the immune system must have to fight disease.

What is AIDS?
AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection. It can take years for a person infected with HIV, even without treatment, to reach this stage. Having AIDS means that the virus has weakened the immune system to the point at which the body has a difficult time fighting infections. When someone has one or more of these infections and a low number of T cells, he or she has AIDS. If someone who is infect with HIV takes their medication(s) as prescribed they often live full and healthy lives and may never be diagnosed with AIDS.

How does HIV cause AIDS?
HIV destroys CD4+ T-cells that are important to the normal function of the human immune system. As the virus destroys these cells, HIV-positive people are susceptible to illnesses that generally do not affect people with healthy immune systems. According to studies including thousands of people, most HIV-positive people are infected with the virus for years before it does enough damage to the immune system to make them susceptible to AIDS-related diseases. Tests are available to measure the amount of HIV in the blood - the viral load - and those with higher viral loads are more likely to develop AIDS-related diseases and to experience a decline in their CD4+ T-cells. Reducing the amount of virus in the body with antiretroviral medications can dramatically slow the destruction of a person's immune system and the progression of illness.

How long does it take for HIV to cause AIDS?
The time between HIV infection and progressing to AIDS differs for each person and depends on many factors, including a person's health status and their health-related behaviors. With a healthy lifestyle, the time between HIV infection and developing AIDS-related illnesses can be 10 to 15 years, sometimes much longer. Antiretroviral therapy significantly slows the progression of HIV to AIDS by decreasing the amount of virus in a person's body. There also are other medical treatments that can prevent or cure some of the illnesses associated with AIDS, although the treatments DO NOT cure HIV or AIDS. As with other diseases, early detection of HIV infection allows for more options for treatment and preventive health care.

How is HIV transmitted?
HIV is a fragile virus. It cannot live for very long outside the body. As a result, the virus is not transmitted through day-to-day activities such as shaking hands, hugging, or a casual kiss. You cannot become infected from a toilet seat, drinking fountain, doorknob, dishes, drinking glasses, food, or pets. You also cannot get HIV from mosquitoes.

HIV is primarily found in the blood, semen, or vaginal fluid of an infected person. HIV is transmitted in 3 main ways:
  • Having sex (anal, vaginal, or oral) with someone infected with HIV.
  • Sharing needles and syringes with someone infected with HIV.
  • Being exposed (fetus or infant) to HIV before or during birth or through breast-feeding.
HIV also can be transmitted through blood infected with HIV. However, since 1985, all donated blood in the United States has been tested for HIV. Therefore, the risk for HIV infection through the transfusion of blood or blood products is extremely low. The U.S. blood supply is considered among the safest in the world.

What are the risk factors for HIV transmission?
Your risk of getting HIV or passing it to someone else depends on several things including:
  1. The type of sex one engages in (oral, vaginal, anal, fetishes, etc.)
  2. How they engage in it (with/without protection, rough or gentle, as the top or bottom, while intoxicated or high, etc.)
  3. How frequently one engages in sex
  4. With whom one engages in sex with (Men, women, both, trans, HIV+ partner, partner with unknown status, their partnerís sexual history)
  5. The number of sex partners one has (and whether or not they are exclusively monogamous or not)
  6. Whether a person currently has / has had a sexually transmitted infection (STI/STD) before
  7. Whether a person uses injection drugs (especially if needles are shared)

How do I know if I am infected with HIV?
The only way to know whether you are infected is to be tested for HIV. You cannot rely on symptoms alone because many people who are infected with HIV do not have symptoms for many years. Someone can look and feel healthy and can still be infected.

For more information on HIV testing, Click Here!

How can I protect myself against HIV?
Depending on your specific risks there are a number of methods available to either reduce or eliminate your risk of contracting HIV and other STDs. You might consider using any or all of the following:

  1. Get tested for HIV
    • While this doesnít actually prevent an infection, it can empower you to take control of your health, seek early treatment if necessary, often gives you access to free condoms and lube, and will help you make a personalized plan with a professional to protect yourself.
    • If you are a man who has had sex with other men, get tested at least once a year.
    • If you are a woman who is planning to get pregnant or who is pregnant, get tested as soon as possible, before you have your baby.
  2. Consider PrEP / PEP
    • PrEP is a once daily pill (Truvada) that when taken as instructed is 92-100% effective at preventing HIV infection in someone who is HIV negative. IT IS NOT for someone who is already HIV+, but could work well for his/her negative partner. IT DOES NOT protect against any other STDs, ONLY HIV. See for more information.
    • PEP involves taking anti-HIV medications as soon as possible (within 3 days!) after you may have been exposed to HIV to reduce the chance of becoming HIV infected. PEP is a month-long course of EMERGENCY medication. If you think you were exposed to HIV, GO IMMEDIATELY to a clinic or emergency room and ask for PEP!
  3. Talk about HIV and other STDs
    • Talk with each partner before you have sex. YOU CANNOT TELL if someone has an STD just from careful observation. Itís important to understand their status, sexual history, and current partners and drug use to understand your own risk.
  4. Learn as much as you can about each partnerís past behavior
    • (Sex and drug use) consider the risks to your health before you have sex.
  5. Ask your partners if they have recently been tested for HIV
    • Encourage those who have not been tested to do so. You can find free testing in a number of locations around Cleveland and can even get tested together should you desire to!
  6. Reduce the number of sex partners
    • By reducing the number of partners one engages in sex with they reduce their risk substantially. The best situation risk-wise, is to be in a mutually monogamous sexual relationship with someone you know is HIV negative and free of other STDs. This IS NOT 100% effective but can be very helpful in reducing oneís risk of becoming infected.
  7. Use a latex condom and lubricant, even for oral sex
    • Condoms are super effective and can be fun! There is a variety of condoms out there from super thin, to ribbed and lubricated to delay a guyís orgasm, to flavored, to glow-in-the-dark. Often times condoms of different kinds are given away free at health clinics and health festivals.
    • Lubrication is another way to reduce your risk. Lube can help avoid creating tears and abrasions, enhance the pleasure for both parties, and even come in fun flavors and temperatures (warming sensation lubricant). WATER or SILICON based lubricants are highly recommended as oil based lubricants can break condoms.
  8. Only engage in oral sex
    • Participating in unprotected oral sex IS NOT 100% effective but can help reduce your chances of contracting HIV and some other STDs
  9. Pull out prior to either partnerís orgasm(s)
    • Pulling out IS NOT 100% effective but can help reduce your risk by reducing the amount of potentially contaminated fluids being exchanged
  10. Get treatment if you think you may have been exposed to an STD
    • Gonorrhea, Syphilis, Chlamydia, and more. These diseases increase your risk of getting HIV.
  11. Avoid injecting illegal drugs (such as heroin)
    • You can get HIV through needles, syringes, and other works if they are contaminated with the blood of someone who has HIV. Drugs also cloud your mind, which may result in riskier sex.
  12. If you do inject drugs, do the following:
    • Use only clean needles, syringes, and other works.
    • Never share needles, syringes, or other works.
    • Be careful not to expose yourself to another person's blood. This may mean being the first to draw and inject.
    • Get tested for HIV and other STDs every 6 months or more.
    • If you want to end your drug use, consider seeking counseling and professional support.
  13. Do not have sex when you are taking drugs or drinking alcohol
    • Being high and/or intoxicated can make you more likely to take risks, less likely to feel pain, and in general increases your risk of contracting an STD like HIV.
Even if you think you have low risk for HIV infection, get tested whenever you have a regular medical check-up.

This information is courtesy of the Cleveland Department of Public Health, Department of HIV/AIDS; the Center for Disease Control - Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention; The National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention; and