Frequently Asked Questions About HIV/AIDS

  • What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?
  • How is HIV transmitted?
  • What are the symptoms of HIV?
  • What are the symptoms for AIDS?
  • How long after a possible exposure should I be tested for HIV?
  • I have heard there are many different types of HIV tests. How do I know which one I should take?
  • What is the difference between an anonymous and confidential test?
  • What do the test results mean?
  • If I test positive, does that mean that I will die?
  • Is there anything I can do to stay healthy?
  • Is there are cure for HIV/AIDS?
  • How do I go about getting tested?

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

H – Human: because this virus can only infect human beings.

I – Immuno-deficiency: because the effect of the virus is to create a deficiency, a failure to work properly, within the body's immune system.

V – Virus: because this organism is a virus, which means one of its characteristics is that it is incapable of reproducing by itself. It reproduces by taking over the machinery of the human cell.

A – Acquired: because it's a condition one must acquire or get infected with; not something transmitted through the genes.

I – Immune: because it affects the body's immune system, the part of the body which usually works to fight off germs such as bacteria and viruses.

D – Deficiency: because it makes the immune system deficient (makes it not work properly).

S – Syndrome: because someone with AIDS may experience a wide range of different diseases and opportunistic infections.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV can be transmitted from an infected person to another through:

  • Blood (including menstrual blood)
  • Semen
  • Vaginal secretions
  • Breast milk (risky only to infants)

Blood contains the highest concentration of the virus, followed by semen, followed by vaginal fluids, followed by breast milk.

Activities That Allow HIV Transmission

  • Unprotected sexual contact
  • Direct blood contact, particularly through sharing injection drug needles.
  • Infections due to blood transfusions, accidents in health care settings or certain blood products are possible, although they are extremely rare nowadays in the United States.
  • Mother to baby (before or during birth, or through breast milk)

Sexual intercourse (vaginal and anal): In the genitals and the rectum, HIV may infect the mucous membranes directly or enter through cuts and sores caused during intercourse (many of which would be unnoticed). Vaginal and anal intercourse is a high-risk practice.

Oral sex (mouth-penis, mouth-vagina): The mouth is an inhospitable environment for HIV (in semen, vaginal fluid or blood), meaning the risk of HIV transmission through the throat, gums, and oral membranes is lower than through vaginal or anal membranes. There are however, documented cases where HIV was transmitted orally, so we can't say that getting HIV-infected semen, vaginal fluid or blood in the mouth is without risk. However, oral sex is considered a low risk practice.

Sharing injection needles: An injection needle can pass blood directly from one person's bloodstream to another. It is a very efficient way to transmit a blood-borne virus. Sharing needles is considered a high-risk practice.

Mother to Child: Mother to child transmission is now rare in the US and other developed countries because pregnant women who are HIV+ are normally given medications to prevent the fetus from getting infected. However, it is possible for an HIV-infected mother to pass the virus directly before or during birth, or through breast milk. Breast milk contains HIV, and while small amounts of breast milk do not pose significant threat of infection to adults, it is a viable means of transmission to infants.

The following "bodily fluids" are NOT infectious:

  • Saliva
  • Tears
  • Sweat
  • Feces
  • Urine

What are the symptoms of HIV?

Symptoms are not a good indication of HIV infection. Many infected persons do not experience symptoms for several years, if ever, and the symptoms that may appear in the early stages can be easily confused with symptoms caused by other factors.

Primary HIV infection is the first stage of HIV disease, when the virus first establishes itself in the body. Some researchers use the term acute HIV infection to describe the period of time between when a person is first infected with HIV and when antibodies against the virus are produced by the body (usually from one to two weeks). This is not to be confused with the "window period" which is the time that has been established for the results of an HIV antibody test to be fully reliable.

Some people newly infected with HIV will experience some "flu-like" symptoms. These symptoms, which usually last no more than a few days, might include fevers, chills, night sweats and rashes (not cold-like symptoms). Many other people either do not experience "acute infection," or have symptoms so mild that they may not notice them.

Given the general character of the symptoms of acute infection, they can easily have causes other than HIV, such as a flu infection. For example, if you had some risk for HIV a few days ago and are now experiencing flu-like symptoms, it might be possible that HIV is responsible for the symptoms, but it is also possible that you have some other viral infection. In addition, some persons under excessive stress can experience similar symptoms even when they don't have the virus, because stress can weaken the body's immune system.

What are the symptoms of AIDS?

There are no common symptoms for individuals diagnosed with AIDS. When immune system damage is more severe, people may experience opportunistic infections (called "opportunistic" because they are caused by organisms which cannot induce disease in people with normal immune systems, but take the "opportunity" to flourish in people with HIV). Most of these more severe infections, diseases and symptoms fall under the Centers for Disease Control's definition of "AIDS." The median time to receive an AIDS diagnosis among those infected with HIV is usually 7-10 years.

How long after a possible exposure should I be tested for HIV?

The time it takes for a person who has been infected with HIV to <strong>seroconvert</strong> (test positive) for HIV antibodies is commonly called the "Window Period".

Recent studies show that a test taken at least 12 weeks (3 months) after the last possible exposure to the virus provides highly accurate results. Based on those studies, many testing clinics in California and other places use a 3 month 'window period' for testing. Very, rarely, a person could take up to six months to produce antibodies and that is almost always a person with a severely compromised immune system due to another disease, such as leukemia.

What does this mean for you?

The three-month window period is normal for approximately 95% of the population. If you feel any anxiety about relying on the 3-month result, by all means you should have another test at 6 months.

I have heard there are many different types of HIV tests. How do I know which one I should take?

The combination of an Eliza/Western Blot HIV Antibody Test is the accepted testing method for HIV infection. This combination test is looking for the antibodies that develop to fight the HIV virus. There are two ways to conduct this test. Either through a blood draw or through the "Orasure " method (a sample of oral mucus obtained with a specially treated cotton pad that is placed between the cheek and lower gum for two minutes). Both forms, by blood draw or orally, have the same accuracy with their results.

Another type of test often available at California testing sites is called "Oraquick," sometimes known as the "rapid test." This HIV-1 antibody test offers results that are highly accurate and the results can be determined within 20 minutes. It provides same day results and counseling. You should however be aware that if the results of the test come out to be "preliminary positive," there is a high probability that you have HIV, but it will be necessary to have a confirmatory test to be sure.

Some testing locations in California charge for this type of test, but there are some locations that will provide the test for free. For testing locations you can call the California HIV/AIDS Hotline at 1-800-367-AIDS or do a referral search on our companion website,

Other tests that you will hear about are Viral Load tests. These tests are used by physicians to monitor their patients who have already tested positive for HIV antibodies.

What is the difference between an anonymous and confidential test?

Anonymous and Confidential use the same testing method. The only difference is one does not have your name attached to the results.

Anonymous antibody testing is available at Anonymous Test Sites in some California counties. Anonymous testing means that absolutely no one has access to your test results since your name is never recorded at the test site. It is always a good idea to contact the testing clinic directly to confirm what type of test is available.

Confidential antibody testing means that you and the health care provider know your results, which may be recorded in your medical file.

What do the test results mean?

A positive result means:

  • You are HIV-positive (carrying the virus that causes AIDS).
  • You can infect others and should try to implement precautions to prevent doing so.

Note: A medical letter of HIV positive diagnosis is required to register with most AIDS Service Organizations to access their programs and services and to qualify for many governmental assistance programs, such as ADAP (AIDS Drug Assistance Program) which assists with the cost of treatment drugs.

A negative result means:

  • No antibodies were found in your blood at this time. A negative result does NOT mean:
  • You are not infected with HIV (if you were tested before the end of the window period).
  • You are immune to AIDS.
  • You have a resistance to infection.
  • You will never get AIDS.

If I test positive, does that mean that I will die?

Testing positive for HIV means that you now carry the virus that causes AIDS. It does not mean that you have AIDS, nor does it mean that you will die as a result of the virus. Although there is no cure for AIDS, many opportunistic infections that make people sick can be controlled, prevented or eliminated. This has substantially increased the longevity and quality of life for people living with AIDS.

Is there anything I can do to stay healthy?

The short answer is yes. There are things that you can do to stay healthy.

Emotional support may be very important for HIV-positive people because it breaks the isolation and provides a safe way of sharing both feelings and practical information.

Medical Care: Once you find a doctor or clinic, your main objective is to get an evaluation of your general health and immune function.

Many doctors do the following:

  • Administer lab tests to evaluate your immune system.&nbsp;
  • Determine if you have other diseases that might become problematic in the future, including syphilis, TB, hepatitis-B, and toxoplasmosis.

If you are already infected with one or more of these other illnesses, there may be treatments or prophylaxis available to prevent it from becoming more serious or recurring in the future. If you're not already infected, doctors may be able to prevent future infection by:

  • Administering vaccines. Many HIV positive people get a hepatitis-B vaccine and bacterial pneumonia vaccines, since contracting these diseases could be dangerous for immune suppressed people.
  • Prescribing antiviral treatments and protease inhibitors when tests show immune system impairment.
  • Scheduling regular checkups. Checkups may be scheduled every three to six months. Some people need more frequent check-ups, particularly when they are starting new antiviral drugs.

Is there a cure for HIV/AIDS?

Although there have been many advances in HIV treatments and therapies in recent years that have dramatically improved the quality of life and life expectancy of persons with HIV/AIDS in the US and other developed countries, there is, as of yet, no cure.

How do I go about getting tested?

In California and other parts of the US as well as many other countries, HIV testing is easily accessible and is often offered at no cost. If you think that you have been exposed to the virus and want to know if you are infected, you may want to contact your local AIDS Hotline for a referral to a testing site near you, where a qualified counselor will be available to explain the testing procedure and answer any questions that you might have.

If you live in California, the number for the Hotline is 1-800-FOR AIDS (1-800-367-2437). You can also refer to the Hotline's web site, where you can search for testing sites by city, county or zip code.