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General HIV Information

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), the last stage of of HIV infection, if not treated. Unlike some other viruses, the human body can't get rid of HIV completely, even after treatment. So once you get HIV, you have it for life.

No effective cure currently exists for HIV. But with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled. Treatment for HIV is called antiretroviral therapy or ART. If taken as prescribed, ART can dramatically prolong the lives of many people infected with HIV, keep them healthy, and greatly lower their chance of infecting others. Before the introduction of ART in the mid-1990s, people with HIV could progress to AIDS (the last stage of HIV infection) in a few years. Today, someone diagnosed with HIV and treated before the disease is far advanced can live nearly as long as someone who does not have HIV.

HIV attacks the body's immune system, specifically the CD4 cells. These special cells help the immune system fight off infections. Untreated, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells in the body. This damage to the immune system makes it harder and harder for the body to fight off infections and some other diseases.

If HIV infection isn't treated, a person is more likely to get other infections or infection-related cancers. These opportunistic infections or cancers take advantage of a very weak immune system and signal that the person has AIDS.

How HIV Is Transmitted

Only certain body fluids—blood, semen (cum), pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum), rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk—from an HIV-infected person can transmit HIV. These fluids must come in contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue or be directly injected into the bloodstream (from a needle or syringe) for transmission to occur. Mucous membranes are found inside the rectum, vagina, penis, and mouth.

Learn more about how HIV is and isn't transmitted in the United States. +

HIV is most often transmitted by

Less commonly, HIV may be spread by

  • Oral sex- putting the mouth on the penis (fellatio), vagina (cunnilingus), or anus (rimming). Although the risk is smaller than for other sex acts, the risk is higher if blood is present.
  • Being born to an infected mother. HIV can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. Although the risk can be high if a mother is HIV-positive and not taking medicine to treat HIV (called antiretroviral therapy, or ART), recommendations to test all pregnant women for HIV and start HIV treatment immediately have lowered the number of babies who are born with HIV.
  • Being stuck with an HIV-contaminated needle or other sharp object. This is a risk mainly for health care workers.
  • Receiving blood transfusions, blood products, or organ/tissue transplants that are contaminated with HIV. This risk is extremely rare because of rigorous testing of the US blood supply and donated organs and tissues.
  • Eating food that has been pre-chewed by an HIV-infected person. The contamination occurs when infected blood from a caregiver's mouth mixes with food while chewing, and is very rare. The only known cases are among infants.
  • Being bitten by a person with HIV. Each of the very small number of documented cases has involved severe trauma with extensive tissue damage and the presence of blood. There is no risk of transmission if the skin isn't broken.
  • Contact between broken skin, wounds, or mucous membranes and HIV-infected blood or blood-contaminated body fluids. Reports of this have also been extremely rare.
  • Deep, open-mouth kissing if both partners have sores or bleeding gums and blood from the HIV-positive partner gets into the blood stream of the HIV-negative partner. HIV isn't spread through saliva. Transmission through kissing alone is extremely rare.

HIV isn't transmitted by

  • Saliva, tears, or sweat that is not mixed with the blood of an HIV-positive person.
  • Hugging, shaking hands, sharing toilets, sharing dishes, or closed-mouth or "social" kissing with someone who is HIV-positive.
  • Other sexual activities that don't involve the exchange of body fluids (e.g., touching).
  • Mosquitoes, ticks or other blood-sucking insects.

Additional Resources

Learn about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's HIV prevention campaigns:

Act Against AIDS: Encouraging all Americans to learn more about HIV/AIDS.