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Answers to the 10 Most Frequently
Asked Questions About HIV/AIDS

1. What is AIDS?

AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is a disease that causes the body to lose its natural protection against infection. A person with AIDS is more likely to become ill from infections and unusual types of pneumonia and cancer that healthy persons normally can fight off.

2. What causes AIDS?

AIDS is caused by a virus called HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which attacks certain white blood cells that protect the body against illness.

3. How does someone get HIV?

HIV is hard to get. However, both men and women can become infected with HIV and can give the virus to someone else. HIV is found in the blood, semen and vaginal secretions of infected persons and can be spread in the following ways:

  • Having sex – vaginal, anal or oral – with an HIV-infected person (male or female).
  • Sharing needles or injection equipment with an HIV-infected person to inject or “shoot” drugs.
  • From an HIV-infected woman to her baby during pregnancy or during birth. An infected mother also can pass HIV to her baby when breastfeeding.

HIV cannot be acquired by:

Hugging, shaking hands, coughs or sneezes, eating food prepared or handled by an HIV-infected person, donating blood, mosquitoes, toilet seats, sweat or tears, simple kissing or everyday contact with HIV-infected persons at school, work, home or anywhere else.

4. What are the signs of HIV infection?

Some persons infected with HIV may feel healthy. Others may have symptoms that include: unexplained tiredness, swollen glands or lymph nodes, dry cough or shortness of breath (not from a cold), fever, chills or night sweats, unexplained weight loss, persistent diarrhea or unusual spots on the skin or in the mouth. Remember, these symptoms are common in other illnesses as well. If these symptoms don’t go away, you should see a doctor.

5. How long does it take to develop signs of HIV?

Persons with HIV can develop signs of infection anywhere from months to years after being infected. About half of the people with HIV develop AIDS within 10 years, but the time between infection with HIV and the onset of AIDS can vary greatly.

6. Can you tell if someone is infected with HIV?

No. Many persons with HIV do not show any sign of infection. However, being infected means HIV is in the body for the rest of their lives and they can infect others if they engage in behaviors that can transmit HIV.

7. What can I do to protect myself from HIV infection?

To avoid infection through sex, the only sure way is not to have sexual intercourse or to have sex only with someone who is not infected and who has sex only with you. Using latex condoms correctly every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex, though not completely safe, can greatly lower your risk of infection. Don’t do drugs. If you do, never share needles or syringes. Sharing needles or syringes to inject drugs or steroids, even once, can transmit HIV. HIV in blood from an infected person can remain in a needle or syringe, then be injected directly into the bloodstream of the next person who uses it.

8. Is there treatment for AIDS?

There is no cure for AIDS and once you have HIV you are infected for life. If you are infected with HIV, the virus slowly weakens your ability to fight illness. There are, however, treatments and medicines that can help your body resist the virus. They slow the growth of HIV and delay or prevent certain life-threatening conditions.

9. Should I seek HIV counseling and testing?

If you have engaged in behavior that can transmit HIV, it is very important that you consider counseling and testing. The only way to tell if you’ve been infected with HIV is by taking an HIV antibody test. This test can be done using either a blood or an oral specimen. It may be done at a doctor’s office, a public health department, a community agency or an outreach testing site. Regardless of where you test, it is important that you discuss what the test may mean with a trained counselor both before and after the test is done. Call the Illinois HIV/AIDS & STD Hotline for a testing site near you.

When the virus enters your body, your immune system makes proteins called antibodies. It takes time for the body to develop HIV antibodies after infection. Almost all persons develop antibodies within 2 to 12 weeks, but it can take up to 6 months after infection. A positive result means antibodies to HIV were found in your body. This means you have HIV infection. You are infected for life and can spread HIV to others. A positive test result does not mean you have AIDS. A negative result means that no HIV antibodies were found. This usually means you are not infected. However, if you engaged in behavior that can transmit the virus within 6 months prior to the test, you may be infected but test negative because your body has not yet made enough antibodies. To be sure, you should test again. The HIV antibody test should always include before-test and after-test counseling. This counseling is to help you understand the results, how to protect your own health and, if you are infected, how to keep from infecting other persons.

10. Where can I get more information on AIDS and HIV testing?

Talk with your doctor or local health department. You also can call the Illinois Department of Public Health toll-free HIV/AIDS & STD Hotline at 1-800-243-2437 or TTY (Information for the hearing impaired only) 1-800-782-0423.

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Illinois Department of Public Health
535 West Jefferson Street
Springfield, Illinois 62761
Phone 217-782-4977
Fax 217-782-3987
TTY 800-547-0466
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