Some facts to help explain AIDS and HIV

Friday December 01, 2000

What is HIV?  

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS. This virus is passed from one person to another through blood-to-blood and sexual contact. In addition, infected pregnant women can pass HIV to their babies during pregnancy or delivery, as well as through breast-feeding. People with HIV have HIV infection. Most of these people will develop AIDS as a result of their HIV infection.  

These body fluids spread HIV: blood, semen, vaginal fluid, breast milk, other body fluids containing blood. 


What is AIDS? What causes AIDS?  

AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. An HIV-infected person receives a diagnosis of AIDS after developing one of the CDC-defined AIDS indicator illnesses. An HIV-positive person who has not had any serious illnesses also can receive an AIDS diagnosis on the basis of certain blood tests.  

A positive HIV test result does not mean that a person has AIDS. A diagnosis of AIDS is made by a physician using certain clinical criteria (e.g., AIDS indicator illnesses).  

Infection with HIV can weaken the immune system to the point that it has difficulty fighting off certain infections. These types of infections are known as “opportunistic” infections because they take the opportunity a weakened immune system gives to cause illness.  

Many of the infections that cause problems or may be life-threatening for people with AIDS are usually controlled by a healthy immune system. The immune system of a person with AIDS is weakened to the point that medical intervention may be necessary to prevent or treat serious illness.  

Today there are medical treatments that can slow down the rate at which HIV weakens the immune system. There are other treatments that can prevent or cure some of the illnesses associated with AIDS. As with other diseases, early detection offers more options for treatment and preventative care.  


How long does it take for HIV to cause AIDS?  

Since 1992, scientists have estimated that about half the people with HIV develop AIDS within 10 years after becoming infected. This time varies greatly from person to person and can depend on many factors, including one’s health status and health-related behaviors.  


What are the symptoms of HIV?  

The only way to determine for sure whether one is infected is to be tested for HIV infection. People cannot rely on symptoms to know whether or not they are infected with HIV. Many people who are infected with HIV do not have any symptoms at all for many years.  

The following may be warning signs of infection with HIV: rapid weight loss, dry cough, recurring fever or profuse night sweats, profound and unexplained fatigue, swollen lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck; diarrhea that lasts for more than a week, white spots or unusual blemishes on the tongue, in the mouth, or in the throat, pneumonia, red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids; memory loss, depression, and other neurological disorders.  

However, people should not assume they are infected if they have any of these symptoms. Each of these symptoms can be related to other illnesses. Again, the only way to determine whether one is infected is to be tested for HIV infection. 

Source: Centers for Disease Control  






Similarly, you cannot rely on symptoms to establish that a person has AIDS. The symptoms of AIDS are similar to the symptoms of many other illnesses. AIDS is a medical diagnosis made by a doctor based on specific criteria 

established by the CDC.  

About drug-associated transmission 

Sharing syringes and other equipment for drug injection is a well known route of HIV transmission, yet injection drug use contributes to the epidemic’ s spread far beyond the circle of those who inject. People who have sex with an injection drug user also are at risk for infection through the sexual transmission of HIV. Children born to mothers who contracted HIV through sharing needles or having sex with an IDU may become infected as well. 

Since the epidemic began, injection drug use has directly and indirectly accounted for more than one-third of AIDS cases in the United States. This disturbing trend appears to be continuing. 

Of the 46,400 new cases of AIDS reported in 1999, 13,833 (30 percent) were IDU-associated. 

Racial and ethnic minority populations in the United States are most heavily affected by IDU-associated AIDS. In 1999, IDUs accounted for 33 percent of all AIDS cases among African American and 35 percent among Hispanic adults and adolescents, compared with 23 percent of all cases among white adults/adolescents.  

IDU-associated AIDS accounts for a larger proportion of cases among women than among men. Since the epidemic began, 58 percent of all AIDS cases among women have been attributed to injection drug use or sex with partners who inject drugs, compared with 31 percent of cases among men. 

Noninjection drugs (such as “crack” cocaine) also contribute to the spread of the epidemic when users trade sex for drugs or money, or when they engage in risky sexual behaviors that they might not engage in when sober. One CDC study of more than 2,000 young adults in three inner-city neighborhoods found that crack smokers were three times more likely to be infected with HIV than non-smokers.