AIDS AND HIV: Prevention and the Search for a Cure

AIDS AND HIV: Prevention and the Search for a Cure

AIDS AND HIV: Prevention and the Search for a Cure

During the 1980s, AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) became an unwelcome part of our vocabulary. The disease launched a global health epidemic when it was identified in 1981. Since then, AIDS has claimed more than 700,000 lives in the United States.

Quickly, AIDS awareness became critical to our health education as we learned that the disease existed and how it spread.

While we have learned a lot about AIDS over the past four decades, World AIDS Day is a time to reflect on the disease and how much it has shaped our culture in the last generation. Every Dec. 1, we take a look at what we know about AIDS — what causes it and how to prevent it.

What is AIDS?

AIDS is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

HIV attacks the body’s immune system, destroying the blood cells that help fight off infection. If HIV destroys enough of these cells, known as CD4 or T-cells, it can trigger AIDS.

Thanks to treatment, some people live long lives with HIV and never develop AIDS. But once you have HIV, the virus stays in your body for life. While there is no cure, there are medicines that can help you stay healthy. Just as important, HIV medicine lowers or may stop your chances of spreading the virus to other people.

HIV Symptoms

Not everyone who contracts HIV experiences symptoms right away. Some may feel tired or have a fever within the first two months after they are infected. Others may feel nothing at all. Testing is the only way to know if  you are infected. Testing is available at doctor’s offices and local public health clinics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information about testing center locations across the United States through a toll-free number: 800-342-AIDS.

People with HIV may also experience one or more of these symptoms:

  • Dry cough
  • Discolored blotches inside the mouth, nose, eyelids, or on or under the skin
  • Diarrhea lasting for more than a week
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph glands in the neck, groin, or armpits
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Regular night sweats or fever
  • White spots in the mouth, throat, or on the tongue
Reduce Your Risk

To protect yourself from the virus, you need to understand the ways HIV and AIDS spread.

  • Sharing Needles  Sharing needles, syringes or other equipment used to inject drugs or steroids with someone who has HIV puts you at risk. Blood and the virus can contaminate the needle or syringe and be transferred to the next user. Needles used for tattoos and piercings can also be infected. If you get a tattoo or piercing, make sure the needle is new.
  • Sexual Transmission Sex with an infected person is the most common way to contract HIV. People of any sexual orientation are at risk—men can infect female or male partners. So can women. To reduce your risk, always use condoms.

HIV can also be transmitted in other ways:

  • Passed from Mother to Child — A mother with HIV can pass the infection on to her child through pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. There are ways to reduce these risks during pregnancy. Talk with your doctor about options that may be available to you if you have been diagnosed with HIV.
  • Blood Transfusions — In the United States, blood used for transfusions is tested for HIV and other viruses before it is given to a patient, so there is little-to-no risk of passing the infection. Not all countries do so, though. Be aware if you seek medical care in another nation. Blood transfusions received outside the United States could put you at risk.
Stop the Spread

While scientists continue to make advances that help people who are HIV positive live longer, it’s important to take steps to protect yourself.

  • Use a condom when having sexual contact.
  • Get tested.
  • Don’t share needles or syringes.
  • Learn about the disease.
  • Share your knowledge with friends and family.

Still have questions? Ask us here for more information.

Sources: HIV Basics, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022; 40 Years of Aids: A Timeline of the Epidemic, leaving site icon University of California San Francisco, 2021; What is HIV, leaving site icon AIDS Healthcare Foundation, 2022.

Originally published 12/1/2015; Revised 2017, 2022