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HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It's similar to other viruses, such as those that cause colds and the flu, with one important difference — the human body cannot get rid of HIV. That means if you get HIV, you get it for life.

Many people don’t realize they have HIV because they feel fine. However, HIV attacks the cells which normally defend the body against illness (called T-cells or CD4 cells), eventually leading to a weakened immune system. If someone is infected with HIV and doesn’t get medical treatment, HIV can destroy so many CD4 cells that the body can't fight infections and diseases anymore. When that happens, HIV infection can lead to AIDS. That is why it is important to get tested and to seek medical treatment as soon as possible if HIV is detected. There is no cure, but with proper medical care, the virus can be controlled.

How is HIV Transmitted?

HIV is spread through blood and genital fluids, including pre-seminal fluid and semen (also known as pre-cum and cum). Anyone can become infected with HIV by engaging in unprotected sex (anal, vaginal or oral) or other types of sexual behavior with an HIV-positive person, or by sharing needles, syringes or other injection equipment with someone who is infected with HIV.

HIV cannot be spread through air or water, insect bites, saliva, tears, sweat, casual contact like shaking hands or sharing dishes, or closed-mouth or social kissing.


Know the Risks

Not having sex is the best way to protect yourself from HIV infection. But if you are having sex, it is important to know the risks of different types of sexual activity. Not all sexual activities have the same risk. Some pose a greater risk for transmitting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, the risk of getting or passing on HIV depends your HIV status, your partner’s HIV status, you or your partner’s viral load (that is, the amount of virus in the body) (if either one of you has HIV), and condom use.

In general, high-risk behavior includes the following:

  • Unprotected sex with multiple partners or partners you do not know
  • Unprotected sex with a person who has HIV
  • Sharing needles for injection drug use


The sexual behavior that has the highest risk of transmitting HIV between gay and bisexual men is unprotected anal sex. Unprotected oral sex can also be a risk for HIV transmission, but it is a lower risk than anal sex.

Information about behaviors that can put you at risk for HIV
  • Having unsafe sex of any kind with many partners increases your chances of being exposed to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and genital herpes.
  • Being infected with other STDs makes you two to five times more likely to get HIV than a person who doesn’t have any STDs. So get tested (and treated, if necessary) for STDs. [1]
  • Alcohol and drug use can contribute to increased risk for HIV and other STDs indirectly by impairing judgment and increasing the likelihood of participating in risky sex, and directly by sharing drug injection equipment.



If you think you are at a high risk for infection, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider about ways to protect yourself, including something called Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), which has been shown to help certain people at risk for HIV reduce their chances for infection. Learn more by reviewing CDC's PrEP Guidance, and consider printing a copy with you to bring to your next healthcare provider’s appointment to discuss whether PrEP may be the right option for you.

If you choose to have sex, following these guidelines will help you avoid risky behavior and reduce your chance of HIV infection
  • Always use a condom whether you are a top or a bottom
  • Reduce your number of sex partners
  • Don't abuse drugs and alcohol, which can lead to impaired and unsafe decisions
  • Get tested for HIV and other STDs regularly (and get treated if you have HIV or an STD)
  • Talk about your HIV status with your partner(s)



Know Your Status

Knowing your HIV status will make you stronger because you will have the information you need to make good decisions about your sexual health and your future. Studies have shown that when people find out they have HIV, they are more likely to take steps to protect their health and that of their partners. Also, if you find out that you are infected with HIV, you can seek medical care quickly. People often live long, fulfilling, and healthy lives after receiving an HIV diagnosis. It’s important to take charge of your health if you are diagnosed with HIV.

Use the Testing Makes Us Stronger testing site locator to find a free HIV testing site near you. Many HIV testing sites provide free, confidential testing. You can also call 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) for assistance in locating a testing site.

There are several different types of tests used to detect HIV infection:

Rapid HIV tests

Provide results very quickly — in as little as 20 minutes. Similar to the traditional antibody tests, rapid tests use blood from a vein, finger stick, urine or oral fluid to look for antibodies to HIV. As is true for all screening tests, a positive reactive rapid HIV test result must be confirmed with a follow-up test before a diagnosis can be made. Rapid tests have similar accuracy rates as other traditional screening tests.

Antibody tests
  • Blood tests use blood drawn from a vein and are the most common screening test used to look for HIV antibodies (special proteins the body makes to fight HIV when it enters the body). A positive result has to be confirmed with a follow-up test to make a positive diagnosis. If the blood gets sent to an outside laboratory for testing, it may take anywhere from one to seven days to get the results.
  • Oral fluid tests use oral fluid (not saliva) that is collected from the mouth using a special collection device. If the fluid gets sent to an outside laboratory for testing, it may take anywhere from one to seven days to get the results.
  • Urine Tests use urine to look for antibodies to HIV and are not as accurate or effective as blood and oral fluid tests. Traditional urine tests can take up to one week for results if the sample has to be sent to a laboratory.

RNA Tests

Look for the genetic material of HIV and are used in screening the blood supply and for detection of rare, very early infection cases when antibody tests are not yet able to detect antibodies to HIV.

Home Testing Kits

Sometimes advertised through the Internet, but the only one approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the Home Access HIV-1 Test System.External Link The accuracy of other home test kits cannot be verified.



Understand the Window Period

If you have unprotected sex or take other risks with someone who is HIV positive, it is important to understand that your infection will not show up immediately in an HIV test. Most HIV tests are antibody tests that measure the antibodies (special proteins the body makes to fight HIV) produced by the body once infected by HIV. It can take some time for these antibodies to show up in a test, and this time period can vary from person to person. This time period is commonly referred to as the “window period.”

Most people will develop antibodies that standard HIV tests can detect within 2 - 8 weeks (the average is 25 days). But, there is a chance that some people will take longer to develop antibodies. So, if you had risky sex or engaged in risky behavior with a person who has HIV or whose HIV status is unknown, you may need multiple tests to ensure you were not infected. For example, if you got an HIV test within the first three months after possible exposure, you should get another test after those three months have passed in case the first test occurred during your window period. Ninety-seven percent of people will develop antibodies in the first three months following the time of their infection. In very rare cases, it can take up to six months to develop antibodies to HIV.

What Happens When Someone Gets Infected

When a person first gets HIV, the body has no defense against the virus. This means that the virus will make a lot of copies of itself, and the newly infected person will be highly infectious. After a few weeks, the body’s immune system begins fighting the virus, and the amount of virus in the blood will decrease.

However, HIV attacks the cells that normally defend the body against illness (called T-Cells or CD4 cells). If someone is infected with HIV and doesn’t get treatment, the virus will eventually overwhelm his or her immune system and usually leads to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). That’s why it is important to get tested, and if HIV infection is detected, to seek medical treatment as soon as possible.

The stages of HIV are:

  • Acute HIV Infection — Acute HIV Infection occurs as early as two weeks after someone becomes infected (but sometimes can happen as late as three months later). During this time, a person is very infectious. The amount of HIV in blood and other body fluids, such as cum and pre-cum, is very high, meaning HIV can be passed on very easily to others. Some people have flu-like symptoms during this time, but others have no symptoms at all. Symptoms can include night sweats, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, rash, fatigue, muscle aches, and ulcers in the mouth. If you think you may have been exposed to HIV and are experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider and get an HIV test as soon as possible. If you are infected, it is important to talk with your healthcare provider to get on a treatment plan and make sure you don’t give HIV to someone else.
  • Clinical Latency (Dormancy or Inactivity) — After the initial infection, the HIV virus becomes less active in the body, but is still present. This period can last up to ten years (sometimes longer), and many people do not have any symptoms of HIV during this period. However, they can still give the infection to others at this time and the virus is still causing harm to their bodies. Appropriate treatment can help prolong this period of inactivity and allow a person with HIV to lead a longer and healthier life.
  • AIDS — This is the last stage of HIV infection, which occurs when a person’s immune system has become badly damaged by the virus and has become susceptible to opportunistic infections (illnesses that attack weakened immune systems). Symptoms can include diarrhea, night sweats, fatigue, fever, chills, vomiting, and severe weight loss. Without treatment, people who are diagnosed with AIDS typically survive about three years. Once someone has a dangerous opportunistic infection, such as pneumonia, life expectancy falls to about one year.


Getting treatment for HIV can save your life and protect others. There is no cure for HIV, nor is there a vaccination to prevent it. However, there are medications than can help those infected with HIV live with the disease and lengthen their lives. To learn more about HIV treatment options, check out CDC's HIV/AIDS treatment website.


1. Wasserheit JN. 1992. Epidemiologic synergy: Interrelationships between human immunodeficiency virus infection and other sexually transmitted diseases. Sexually Transmitted Diseases 9:61-77.