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JAMA Patient Page
July 12, 2016

Human Immunodeficiency Virus

JAMA. 2016;316(2):238. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.7995

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes AIDS.

What Is HIV?

Over time, HIV can weaken a person’s immune system by infecting cells that fight infection. Although HIV infection can be treated with medications that improve many symptoms and prolong life, there is no cure for HIV and no vaccine to prevent infection. Without treatment, HIV can seriously damage the immune system, which leads to unusual infections and certain kinds of cancer. In 2014, there were about 37 million people infected with HIV worldwide. There are more than 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States.

How Is HIV Spread?

You can get HIV only through certain activities. You cannot get HIV infection from touching an infected person, being in the same room as someone with HIV, or through contact with surfaces like toilet seats. You can get HIV infection from

  • Certain body fluids, including semen, vaginal secretions, rectal fluids (through sexual contact with an infected person), and blood. These infected fluids have to either come in contact with mucous membranes or go directly into the bloodstream. In terms of HIV transmission, anal sex is the riskiest type of sexual activity.

  • Sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs with someone who has HIV.

  • Infected blood or blood products through transfusion. This is very rare in the United States but can happen in countries where blood and blood donors are not tested for HIV.

Women with HIV infection can transmit the virus to their babies during pregnancy, at the time of birth, or through breastfeeding. HIV infection is not transmitted through saliva.

Preventing HIV Infection

  • People who are sexually active can decrease the risk of HIV by having fewer partners or limiting the highest-risk types of sex (anal sex). If you are sexually active, correctly use a new condom every time you have any sexual contact. This includes oral, anal, or vaginal sex of any type. Latex condoms provide the best protection against HIV.

  • If you inject drugs, get treatment and do not share needles or other equipment.

  • Preexposure prophylaxis (called PrEP) is increasingly used to prevent HIV in people who have a very high risk of infection. PrEP involves taking a specific medication every day to decrease the risk of getting HIV from sex or injection drug use. PrEP works well if it is taken every day as directed.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of HIV

Most people with HIV infection may not feel sick for a long time. However, HIV infection can result in a variety of symptoms that can vary depending on how long a person has been infected. Some people have flu-like symptoms a few weeks after they first are infected with HIV. These symptoms include fever, sore throat, and swollen glands in the neck. Because HIV damages the immune system, some people with HIV develop serious infections. The only way to know for sure is to be tested for HIV. Many places offer testing. Sometimes the test can be negative if it is very early in the infection.

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For More Information

To find this and previous JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page link on JAMA’s website at www.jama.com. Spanish translations are available in the supplemental content tab.

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Article Information
The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 312/464-0776.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Topic: Infectious Disease

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