What Is HIV?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system. The immune system is the body’s germ fighting system. The immune system becomes weaker, making it harder for the body to fight off infections and some kinds of cancers.

Most people who get treatment early and take medicines for HIV can live long, healthy lives.

What Is AIDS?

AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) happens after someone has had HIV for many years. In AIDS, the immune system is severely weakened. Serious infections and health problems happen.

Medicines can help prevent HIV from developing into AIDS.

How Do People Get HIV?

Most young children who have HIV got it before they were born or shortly after birth.

Older people can get HIV through:

  • sex
  • sharing needles for injecting drugs or tattooing
  • getting stuck with a needle with an infected person’s blood on it

HIV is NOT spread through:

  • pee, poop, spit, throw-up, or sweat (as long as there's no blood)
  • coughing or sneezing
  • holding hands
  • sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of HIV and AIDS?

When first infected with HIV, a person may have a fever, swollen glands, a rash, muscle aches, and other problems.

After a few years, other symptoms start, like diarrhea, weight loss, and problems with infections.

Without treatment, HIV can lead to a very weakened immune system and become AIDS. 

What Causes HIV and AIDS?

HIV destroys CD4 cells (also called T cells). CD4 cells are part of the immune system. They fight germs and help prevent some kinds of cancers.

What Do Doctors Do?

Health care providers usually can tell if someone has HIV through blood tests. People who do are said to be "HIV positive."

If the immune system becomes very weak, someone is said to have AIDS.

How Are HIV and AIDS Treated?

Medicines can help people with HIV stay healthy. They can also prevent HIV from becoming AIDS. People with HIV and AIDS usually need to take a few different medicines. The medicines must be taken exactly as prescribed or they won't work.

These medicines:

  • help keep the number of CD4 cells high 
  • lower the viral load of HIV (how much HIV is in the body) 

Regular blood tests will check to see how well the medicines are working.

Looking Ahead

By taking medicines and getting regular medical care, HIV-positive people can live long and healthy lives.

People with HIV need a medical care team for the best treatment and support. If you or someone you know has HIV or AIDS it is important to:

  • go to all doctor visits
  • take all medicines exactly as directed
  • go for all follow-up blood tests
  • understand what HIV/AIDS is and how it spreads
  • be physically active, get enough sleep, and eat well
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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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