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What is HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, attacks the CD4 cells in the immune system, which help fight off infections and some cancer. HIV causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) when the infection is advanced. HIV is spread by contact with bodily fluids that are infected with the virus, including blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. It is not spread by saliva or nasal discharge, like a cold or flu. Unlike cold and flu viruses, HIV does not survive long outside the body. Sexual contact and sharing needles for drug use are the main ways HIV is spread.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that destroys the body's ability to fight off infection. HIV causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). It can take up to 10 years or more between HIV infection and the diagnosis of AIDS. People infected with HIV may or may not have symptoms. Some common symptoms are unexplained weight loss, a white coating on the tongue, sore and enlarged glands in the neck, armpits or other parts of the body, persistent fever or cough.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS is a disease that attacks the body's immune system. The immune system is our body's natural defense system and allows us to fight off viruses, bacteria and other diseases.

HIV was first reported as a threat by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1981 and now is a worldwide problem. When HIV was discovered, it was diagnosed almost entirely in men. Now, one in four people living with HIV are women.

The good news is that HIV is much more manageable than in the past. Originally, HIV was practically a death sentence. Few drugs were available to treat the virus, and resulting infections attacked the weakened immune system. Since then, a number of drugs have been developed and approved to treat both HIV and its related infections. These medications have extended the lives of many people living with the disease.

But the drugs used to manage HIV certainly aren't perfect. And they come with side effects that range from nausea and vomiting to life-threatening reactions. Therefore, all people—men, women, teenagers and even people over 50—need to be careful about protecting themselves from being infected with the virus in the first place.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.