What Is AIDS? AIDS is short for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. AIDS is a disease that slowly destroys the body's immune system. Without these important defenses, a person with AIDS can't fight off germs and cancers. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. It kills an important kind of blood cell -- the CD4 T lymphocyte, or T cell. These T cells are the quarterbacks of the immune system. As they die off, the body becomes more and more vulnerable to other diseases. Germs take this opportunity to invade the body. The diseases they cause are called opportunistic infections (OIs for short). When people with HIV get these infections -- or when their CD4 T-cell levels get too low -- they have AIDS. Usually it takes many years for HIV to weaken the body's immune system to the point of AIDS. Anti-HIV drugs help prevent this. Even when a person already has AIDS, the drugs can help a person get better. Anti-HIV drugs let many people with HIV infection live healthy lives. Combinations of these powerful medicines work very well, but they often have serious side effects, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue. And people with HIV have to keep taking these drugs every day for the rest of their lives. Ask anyone who's taking these "drug cocktails" -- it's best to avoid getting HIV in the first place. AIDS is a worldwide epidemic. Most cases are in Africa, but the disease is spreading most rapidly in Eastern Europe and Asia. Even if a cure were found tomorrow, AIDS will be the most deadly disease ever to plague mankind. What Causes It? HIV -- human immunodeficiency virus -- causes AIDS. HIV infection is for life. There is no cure, but anti-HIV drugs keep HIV in check. Unfortunately, 95% of the world's HIV infected people cannot afford this medicine. There are a few people who say HIV does not cause AIDS. Some are scientists, but none of them are AIDS experts. They offer only false hope and no answers. Overwhelming medical and scientific evidence shows that HIV is the AIDS virus. Every major health organization in the world says that HIV is a killer. There are two main types of HIV -- HIV-1 and HIV-2. HIV-2 is rare outside Africa. You can't catch HIV unless another person's body fluids -- blood, semen, or vaginal secretions -- enter your bloodstream. This can happen through the tip of the penis, through the vagina, through the rectum, or through an open wound. HIV is spread: By having sex without a condom. Vaginal and anal sex carry a high risk. The risk of getting HIV from oral sex is low. By sharing needles and/or syringes to inject drugs or steroids. From a mother to her infant during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding. By getting a tattoo or piercing from a dirty needle. By transfusions, blood products, or organ transplants. This kind of transmission no longer happens in developed countries, which test all donated blood and organs for HIV. You can't get HIV from a toilet seat or from touching an infected person. You can't get HIV from being sneezed or coughed or spit on by an infected person. You can't get HIV from kissing (although there is a theoretical risk from very deep "French" kissing). You can't get HIV from a mosquito, flea, or tick bite. What Are the Symptoms? HIV infection comes in three stages: acute infection, chronic infection, and AIDS. Acute HIV infection is the earliest and shortest stage of HIV infection. Not everyone gets symptoms, but most people come down with a flu-like illness three to six weeks after infection. The symptoms are the same as flu or mononucleosis: fever and fatigue lasting for a week or two. There may or may not be other symptoms: A blotchy red rash, usually on the upper torso, that does not itch Headache Aching muscles Sore throat Swollen lymph glands Diarrhea Nausea Vomiting IMPORTANT: If you have been at risk of getting HIV and then come down with these flu-like symptoms, tell a doctor right away. Sensitive new tests can tell whether you have acute HIV infection. Treatment during the acute stage of HIV infection works much, much better than later treatment. Be sure to tell your doctor about your HIV risk. If you don't, you may not get the right tests. Standard HIV tests -- either home tests or lab tests -- won't detect acute HIV infection. The body puts up a terrific struggle against HIV. At the end of this struggle, the body reaches a kind of standoff with the virus. This is chronic HIV infection, which begins three to six months after a person gets HIV. There aren't any symptoms. For most people, this stage of HIV infection lasts about 10 years. Even though there are no symptoms, the immune system slowly runs down. A normal person has a CD4 T-cell count of 450 to 1,200 cells per microliter. When people with HIV have their T-cell counts drop to 200 or lower, they have reached the stage of AIDS. AIDS itself has no symptoms. Because the immune system is devastated, disease symptoms are specific to the kind of infections a person may have. When a person's T cells get very low, doctors prescribe drugs to prevent infections. Sometimes people don't seek medical help until they have AIDS. They may have some of the following symptoms: Being tired all the time Swollen lymph nodes in the neck or groin Fever lasting more than 10 days Night sweats Unexplained weight loss Purplish spots on the skin that don't go away Shortness of breath Severe, long-lasting diarrhea Yeast infections in the mouth, throat, or vagina Easy bruising or unexplained bleeding Call your doctor if you have any of these symptoms. How Can I Prevent AIDS? The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get an HIV test. If you are at risk of HIV, you should have an HIV test every six months. You should also reduce your risk (see the section on Prevention). Soon after HIV infection, the body begins to make antibodies that fight the virus. The HIV test looks for these antibodies in your blood. After about three months, most people have enough anti-HIV antibodies to test positive on standard HIV tests. Some people don't test positive for six months or even a year, so repeat testing is needed. The HIV test is simple. Home tests are available. You can also get tested at labs that keep your identity secret. You can also get tested by your doctor, and at your public health department. If you are doing a home test, or if you order a test from a lab, a positive result means you should see a doctor to confirm that you're really infected. If you know you are at high risk of HIV infection and come down with a bad case of the flu, see a doctor right away. It could be the early signs of HIV infection. Tell your doctor about your risk behavior. There are very sensitive tests that can tell if you've got HIV -- and treatment during this very early stage of infection works best. Before getting tested, think about what your test result will mean. Most people need help with this, so see a counselor, psychologist, or doctor for advice -- or call your local AIDS hotline. Prepare for your result. If you test negative, you may want to talk about how to reduce your future risk. There are many private AIDS organizations that can give you this kind of help. Usually these organizations have "been-there, done-that" counselors you can relate to. If you test positive, you'll need help deciding what to do. HIV infection isn't a death sentence. It does mean that you will need to take special care of your health. It also means that you will have to take special care not to infect anybody else with the AIDS virus. If you test positive for HIV, you must have medical care. If you don't have a doctor, a local AIDS organization or AIDS hotline can help you find one. Get some help from a person you trust. If you don't have a person like this in your life, get help from a professional counselor. Have this person go with you to the doctor. If you test positive, you have to tell your sex and/or needle-sharing partners that they, too, need to be tested. But you don't have to tell everybody else. Tell only those people who can support you. If you have children, talk with a counselor about what to tell them, and when.