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know your risk

HIV is a virus that attacks certain white blood cells, called CD4+ cells, the helper cells that are part of your immune system. If too many CD4+ cells are destroyed, your body can't defend itself against illnesses.

Soon after infection, HIV may cause fevers, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes. If someone has these symptoms, he or she will discover that they will usually go away within a few weeks. These symptoms may reappear, but some people with HIV may not have signs of illness for many years. Fatigue, weight loss, fever, night sweats, and diarrhea are common. The last stage of HIV infection is AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), at which point most will experience severe symptoms. Antiretroviral medicines are the main treatment for HIV.

How do you get HIV?

HIV isn't spread by casual contact, such as being around someone who has HIV, or kissing or sharing drinking glasses with an infected person.

You can get HIV from contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluids if you:

  • Have unprotected sex (vaginal, anal, or oral sex without using condoms)
  • Share needles for IV drugs, tattoos, or body piercing without cleaning or sterilizing them
  • Had blood transfusions or artificial insemination before 1985

Women with HIV who aren't treated can pass the virus to their babies in the womb or by breastfeeding them. HIV infection can be prevented in babies through medication.

What is your risk?

You have an increased risk of getting HIV if you:

  • Are a man who has sex with men
  • Inject drugs or steroids, especially if you share needles, syringes, cookers, or other equipment used to inject drugs
  • Have more than one sex partner, especially if you or one of the partners injects drugs
  • Have a high-risk partner (a man who has sex with men, or someone who has multiple sex partners or injects drugs)
  • Currently have or recently had a sexually transmitted disease

Photo of a woman looking into the cameraWomen account for more than a quarter of all new HIV infections nationally — with a higher rate of infection among African American and Hispanic women. Learn more about women and HIV.

If you have one STD, your risk of getting another (including HIV) greatly increases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente have discovered high rates of gonorrhea and syphilis among men who have sex with other men (even if they do so only occasionally and they also have sex with women). Learn how to prevent HIV and other STDs.

Reviewed by: Michael A. Horberg, MD, October 2018

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