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HIV/AIDS: The Facts

► Learn more about HIV/AIDS

What is AIDS?
AIDS (acquired immuno-deficiency syndrome) is a serious illness. The virus that causes AIDS attacks the immune system, the body's natural defense against disease. Damage to the immune system leaves the body vulnerable to secondary illnesses that can be fatal. There is still no known cure for AIDS, but effective treatments are now available. Research continues in the hope of developing better treatments and a vaccine.

Why should I learn about AIDS?
You should learn about AIDS because you may be at risk for it or you may be HIV positive, or your job may involve helping people who have AIDS. Learning about AIDS can help you understand the facts and reject the myths about the illness. Knowing about AIDS will also help you respond without fear to people who require your help.

What causes AIDS?
AIDS is caused by a virus called HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). A healthy immune system includes special kinds of white bloods cells called B cells and T cells, and depends on a balance of certain kinds of T cells. "Helper" T cells assist B cells in fighting disease. "Suppressor" T cells call off the attack when the invading disease has been stopped. HIV apparently destroys the helper cells without affecting suppressor cells proportionately. When suppressor cells outnumber helper cells, the immune system fails.

What are the effects of HIV on the body?
HIV may be in the body for many years before there are any signs of illness. As HIV weakens the immune system, signs and symptoms may appear. People may have:
  • swollen lymph glands in the neck, underarm, and groin area
  • recurrent fever, including "night sweats"
  • rapid weight loss for no apparent reason
  • constant fatigue
  • diarrhea and decreased appetite
  • white spots or unusual blemishes in the mouth
  • other illnesses
People infected with HIV can't fight off a number of serious illnesses without medical treatment. One common illness of this type is Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), usually a rare lung infection. Symptoms include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

Scientific research also shows that HIV can damage the brain and spinal cord. Signs of damage may include memory loss, indifference, inability to make decisions, partial paralysis, loss of coordination, and other problems in controlling the body.

How is HIV transmitted?
HIV is mainly spread:
  • unprotected sexual contact with an HIV-infected person
  • by sharing a needle to inject drugs with an HIV-infected person
  • from HIV-infected mothers to their infants before, during, and after birth (breast feeding)
HIV may also be spread through blood products. This is very unlikely now because:
  • all donors are carefully screened
  • all donors' blood and blood products are tested before being used
Current research shows that HIV is NOT spread by casual contact. For example, it is not spread by nonsexual, everyday contact, such as:
  • touching, hugging, and shaking hands
  • breathing and coughing
  • using toilets, telephones, drinking fountains, etc.
Anyone can get infected with HIV.
So far, most cases have occurred among:
  • homosexual and bisexual men who contracted HIV through sexual activity with an infected person
  • heterosexuals who contracted HIV from sexual activity with an infected person
  • injection drug users who contracted HIV by sharing needles and drug "works" to inject drugs
  • hemophiliacs who, years ago, contracted HIV through the use of donated blood and blood products
  • children who contracted HIV from an infected mother
Remember, anyone can look healthy and still be infected.

For more information about HIV/AIDS, call 1-800-TALK-HIV.