HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages the cells in your immune system and weakens your ability to fight everyday infections and disease.

AIDS is a set of symptoms (or syndrome as opposed to a virus) caused by HIV. A person is said to have AIDS when their immune system is too weak to fight off infection, and they develop certain defining symptoms and illnesses. This is the last stage of HIV, when the infection is very advanced, and if left untreated will lead to death.

Causes of HIV infection

HIV is found in the body fluids of an infected person. This includes semen, vaginal and anal fluids, blood, and breast milk.

Other ways HIV is spread from person to person include:

  • Through vaginal or anal sex.
  • Sharing needles, syringes, and other items for injection drug use.
  • Sharing tattoo equipment without sterilizing it between uses.
  • During pregnancy, labor, or delivery from a woman to her baby
  • Breastfeeding
  • Through “pre-mastication,” or chewing a baby’s food before feeding it to them
  • Through exposure to the blood of someone living with HIV, such as through a needle stick

The virus doesn’t spread in air or water, or through casual contact.

Symptoms of HIV 

Most people infected by HIV develop a flu-like illness within a month or two after the virus enters the body. Possible signs and symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches and joint pain
  • Rash
  • Sore throat and painful mouth sores
  • Swollen lymph glands, mainly on the neck
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue

Treatment options for HIV

No effective cure currently exists for HIV. But with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled. If you think you may have been infected with HIV or are at risk of contracting the virus, see a health care provider as soon as possible.

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