What Is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) attacks the immune system, causing deficiency or damage in the immune system. HIV damages the body's ability to fight diseases and infections.

HIV infection leads to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Without a healthy, functioning immune system, a person may become vulnerable to infections by bacteria, other viruses and disease-causing organisms. These infections may cause life threatening illnesses.

How Is HIV Spread?

HIV is spread primarily by:

  • Not using a condom when having sex with a person who has HIV. All unprotected sex with someone who has HIV contains some risk. However:
    • Unprotected anal sex is riskier than unprotected vaginal sex.
    • Among men who have sex with other men, unprotected receptive anal sex is riskier than unprotected insertive anal sex.
  • Having multiple sex partners or the presence of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can increase the risk of infection during sex. Unprotected oral sex can also be a risk for HIV transmission, but it is a much lower risk than anal or vaginal sex.
  • Sharing needles, syringes, rinse water, or other equipment used to prepare illicit drugs for injection.
  • Being born to an infected mother— HIV can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breast-feeding.

What Is AIDS?

A diagnosis of AIDS is made by a physician using specific clinical or laboratory standards.

AIDS stands for: Acquired ImmunoDeficiency Syndrome.

A - Acquired – means that the disease is not hereditary. A person acquires AIDS after birth from contact with HIV.

I - Immuno- refers to the body's immune system, the immune system includes all organs and cells that work to fight infection or disease.

D - Deficiency – means that a person gets AIDS when the immune system is no longer working the way it should. Thus, immunodeficiency means that the disease is characterized by a weakening of the immune system.

Syndrome – refers to a group of symptoms that indicate or characterize a disease. AIDS is syndrome because it is an illness with a wide range of complications and symptoms.

AIDS refers to the most advanced stages of an HIV infection. It is a complex condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which damages the immune system and affects the body's ability to fight infection and disease.

People with damaged immune systems are at risk for diseases that do not threaten people with a healthy immune system.

Medical treatment for HIV can delay the onset of AIDS, which is why it is important to know your status and receive treatment as soon as possible if you are HIV positive.

For more information, go to CDC's Basic Information about HIV/AIDS, which offers useful information about HIV/AIDS statistics, transmission, testing and prevention.

HIV Program staff can help you with your questions.