A couple of decades ago, an HIV diagnosis would probably have been thought of as a death sentence. But major advances in the treatment and prevention of HIV mean that many more people are able to avoid getting the virus in the first place and those who do are better able to keep their disease from progressing to full-blown AIDS.

Despite an increase in public understanding of HIV/AIDS, many people still have misconceptions and questions about the virus and how it can be treated or prevented. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about HIV.

In This Section

  • How does HIV start?
  • Is HIV easily transmitted?
  • Can HIV kill you?
  • How hard is it to catch HIV?
  • How long can you stay undetectable?
  • Can I breastfeed if my viral load is undetectable?
  • Is undetectable the same as negative?
  • What percentage of the population has HIV?
  • How common is HIV in 2019?
  • Where is HIV most common?
  • How common is HIV in straight males?
  • What is usually the first sign of HIV?
  • How quickly do HIV symptoms appear?
  • How do you feel when you have HIV?
  • How long can HIV go without symptoms?
  • Can I get HIV from one exposure?
  • Can HIV kill you?
  • Can you survive AIDS?
  • What happens if I skip a day of PrEP?
  • How long before PrEP is effective?
  • What does u=u mean?

How does HIV start?

The only way to contract human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is by coming into contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected person, whether through sex, sharing drug paraphernalia or through exposure to the blood of an infected person. Within a few weeks of becoming infected, a person may begin to feel sick, experiencing flu-like symptoms that may last for a few weeks. Without treatment, HIV over time breaks down the body’s immune system, leading to AIDS.

Is HIV easily transmitted?

HIV is spread through bodily fluids, such as blood, semen or vaginal fluids. The virus enters an uninfected body through cuts or sores on the skin and through the mucous membranes located inside the vagina or rectum and in the tip of the penis. HIV cannot be transmitted through casual contact, sharing food or drinks, or holding hands.

Can HIV kill you?

The initial stages of an HIV infection can cause symptoms resembling the flu, but this initial infection period is usually quite short if it’s present at all. In fact, many people don’t feel sick at all and are, therefore, unaware they have become infected. Without treatment, HIV attacks the body’s immune system, reducing the number of CD4 cells (also known as T cells). When someone with untreated HIV reaches a CD4 cell count below 200, they are diagnosed with AIDS, which makes the body vulnerable to infections that may be fatal.

How hard is it to catch HIV?

While HIV cannot be passed through non-intimate or casual contact like some other sexually transmitted diseases, regularly engaging in certain behaviors can vastly elevate a person’s risk of contracting the virus. HIV can only be transmitted via bodily fluids like blood, semen or vaginal fluid.

How long can you stay undetectable?

Treatment with antiretroviral drugs lowers the viral load, or the number of copies of the virus inside a person’s body. The lower the number of copies, the less likely it is to transmit the virus to others. For most patients who begin a daily antiretroviral drug regimen, their viral load should become undetectable within about six months and should stay that way as long as they continue taking their medication as prescribed.

Can I breastfeed if my viral load is undetectable?

Medical experts recommend that women who have access to clean water and baby formula should not breastfeed their babies even if they have an undetectable viral load. For women who lack access to these resources, transmission of HIV through breast milk can be prevented if both mother and baby are on a consistent antiretroviral therapy (ART) regimen.

Is undetectable the same as negative?

No, but an undetectable viral load for an HIV-positive person does mean that the risk of them passing HIV to a sexual partner is basically zero. Some of the virus remains in the body, though, so it’s not the same as testing negative for HIV.

What percentage of the population has HIV?

About 1.1 million Americans have HIV, according to the most recent CDC data, but 1 in 7 of them are not aware they are infected. Across the world, HIV is much more common than here in the United States, particularly in lower-income countries. Globally, just under 1% of adults have HIV, but in Swaziland and Lesotho, more than 25% of adults are infected with HIV.

How common is HIV in 2019?

More than 38,000 people in the U.S. are newly diagnosed with HIV in a typical year, and more than 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV. Globally, just under 1% of all adults are infected with HIV, but rates are much higher in low-income countries. In the U.S. rates of newly diagnosed infections have fallen in recent years, dropping 9% between 2010 and 2016.

Where is HIV most common?

Globally, HIV is much more prevalent in low-income countries than in wealthy nations. HIV infection rates are highest on the African continent, particularly in Swaziland and Lesotho, where more than 1 in 4 adults between 15 and 49 are infected with the virus. In the U.S., diagnosis rates are highest in the South and in large-population states, such as Florida, California and New York.

How common is HIV in straight males?

In the United States, men account for about 80% of all new infections, but gay and bisexual men are much more likely than straight males to be diagnosed with HIV. About 11% of new infections were in straight men.

What is usually the first sign of HIV?

The first signs of untreated HIV are usually a temporary illness that can mimic the flu, with symptoms such as fever and aches. However, many people either never experience these symptoms or confuse them for something else, like the flu or a cold. Most of those who do experience these flu-like symptoms have no further symptoms for years.

How quickly do HIV symptoms appear?

Within the first 2-4 weeks of contracting HIV, many people experience a temporary illness that consists of fever, aches and a general sick, flu-like feeling. This is essentially the body reacting to having been infected with HIV, and even for those who do experience it, it’s a short-term reaction.

How do you feel when you have HIV?

In the short-term, newly infected people often experience a flu-like illness that can come on within a couple of weeks after exposure. But untreated HIV eventually breaks down the body’s immune system by reducing the number of CD4 cells (often called T cells), making a person susceptible to opportunistic infections and eventually leading to AIDS.

How long can HIV go without symptoms?

Many infected people show no signs of HIV until the virus has broken down their immune systems. It’s not uncommon for it to take as long as 10 years for HIV to start displaying any observable signs, but even if a person has no symptoms of HIV, they still can pass the virus along, which is why anybody who is at risk of exposure should get tested regularly.

Can I get HIV from one exposure?

Few studies have effectively calculated the risk of contracting HIV from a single exposure, but meta-analyses have attempted to quantify the risk based on the method of exposure (giving, receiving, vaginal or anal sex) and found that the highest single-exposure risk is in receiving anal sex, which carries as much as a 3% chance. However, it’s important to understand that certain biological factors can increase your risk, such as already being infected with another sexually transmitted disease or having some other immune condition.

Can HIV kill you?

Getting treatment for HIV makes a person much less likely to develop AIDS. In fact, people who remain on a regular antiretroviral therapy (ART) regimen can lower their viral load to a point where it’s undetectable. But for those who are unable to remain on an ART regimen, eventually HIV will deteriorate the immune system to a point where their CD4/T cells will die off and they will develop AIDS. So HIV on its own is not fatal, but untreated HIV can lead to AIDS, which makes the body susceptible to opportunistic infections that will probably be deadly.

Can you survive AIDS?

Without treatment, a person who develops AIDS will probably live only a few years. But even after HIV becomes full-blown AIDS, treatment with antiretroviral drugs can help stabilize the immune system and extend a person’s life for years. In fact, a study of people with HIV (not AIDS, which is an important distinction) found that modern antiretroviral therapy (ART) can more than quadruple the life expectancy of a person with HIV.

What happens if I skip a day of PrEP?

PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is most effective at preventing you from contracting HIV if you take it every day, but missing one dose isn’t a cause for panic. If you forget your pill one day, just take it as soon as you remember (provided it’s not time for your next dose). Truvada, which is the only FDA-approved PrEP on the market so far, works by blocking an enzyme that essentially prevents HIV from making copies of itself inside the body, which is how the infection takes hold. So if you skip one day, this enzyme level may begin to rise again.

How long before PrEP is effective?

According to the CDC, PrEP reaches its maximum effective level for receiving anal sex in 7 days and for receiving vaginal sex in 20 days. Data is not yet available on how long PrEP needs to become effective for insertive anal or insertive vaginal sex.

What does u=u mean?

The abbreviation u=u means “undetectable=untransmittable,” meaning that a person with an undetectable level of HIV in their bloodstream cannot transmit the virus to their sex partners. It’s a slogan aimed at raising awareness of antiretroviral therapy (ART), which, if taken every day, can reduce an infected person’s viral load to a point where the virus can’t be spread to a sexual partner.