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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 which healthy persons normally can fight off.

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.

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 drug needles or syringes 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 spread through:

  • 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 kisses
  • Everyday contact with HIV-infected persons at school, work, home or anywhere else.

What is an HIV antibody test?

It is a blood or oral test that can determine whether antibodies to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, are present in a person’s body. Antibodies are produced after infection with HIV. There is no test for AIDS itself.

Should I take one of the tests?

You should seriously consider taking an HIV antibody test if you:

  • are a man who has sex with other men;
  • have shared needles or syringes to inject drugs;
  • have sexual relationships with several partners;
  • are a hemophiliac who received clotting factor prior to 1986;
  • have sex or have had sex with someone who falls into one of the above groups.

The decision to take or not take an HIV antibody test is a very personal choice. That’s why counseling is a large part of the Illinois Department of Public Health’s testing program. Every person meets individually with a trained health professional at various stages of testing... before, during and after the actual HIV test.

What kind of counseling is provided?

First, individuals receive complete information on HIV testing to help them determine whether they should be tested.

After the test, a counselor explains the test result and talks about ways to reduce the risk of getting or transmitting HIV.

The counseling helps those who test understand how HIV infection may change their lives and those around them. Counseling also helps make people understand changes they must make in their behavior to reduce the risk of getting or transmitting HIV.

Where are HIV antibody tests given?

Anonymous or confidential counseling and testing are available at many health departments and community agencies, including some outreach testing sites. Call the Illinois Department of Public Health toll-free AIDS/HIV & STD hotline at 1-800-243-2437 for the location nearest you. Or contact your personal physician to arrange for a test.

Exactly how is HIV antibody testing done?

The actual HIV antibody test is done in three steps. First, after pre-test counseling, a blood or oral (between the gum and cheek) sample is taken and sent to a laboratory for a test called the ELISA (Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay).

If the results of the first test are positive, a second ELISA is done on the same sample.

If the second ELISA is also positive, an additional test, called the Western blot, is done. Based on the findings, physicians and other medical specialists can find out if antibodies to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, are present in the body.

It is important to know that none of these tests are foolproof. Whether the result is positive or negative, results must be discussed with each individual by a trained health care professional.

What does a negative test mean?

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 before the test, you may be infected but test negative because your body has not yet made enough antibodies. To be sure, you should be retested.

What does a positive test mean?

A positive result means antibodies to HIV were found. This means you have HIV infection. You are infected for life and can spread HIV to others. You are likely to develop AIDS, but no one can know when you will get sick. Within 10 years after infection, about half of untreated people have developed AIDS. Prompt medical care may delay the onset of AIDS and prevent some life- threatening conditions.

It is important that you see a doctor so that your health as a whole can be evaluated.

It is also important that you understand how to prevent the spread of HIV, both for your health and the health of those you care about.

If my test is positive, how should I change my behavior?

If you test positive, don’t worry about normal contact with family, friends or fellow employees. Hugging, shaking hands and other types of casual contact will NOT spread HIV.

However, there are steps you should take to protect the health of others:

  • You may infect others if you engage in behavior that can transmit HIV (sexual intercourse -- vaginal, anal and oral -- or sharing needles or syringes). Never share needles or syringes.
  • If you remain sexually active, always use latex condoms. Use them from beginning to end every time you have sex and make sure to use them properly. Counseling can help answer questions about unsafe sexual behavior.
  • If you are a woman considering pregnancy, you are strongly urged to discuss your plans with your doctor. Drug therapy during pregnancy and after the birth can reduce the risk of your baby being infected with HIV.
  • Do not donate blood, organs, sperm or bone marrow. Revise any organ donor permissions you have given.
  • Tell any doctor or dentist who treats you that you are infected.

There is no known risk of spreading HIV except in situations in which others come in contact with your blood, semen or vaginal fluids.

You should tell anyone with whom you have had sex (vaginal, anal or oral) or shared needles that you are (and they may be) infected with HIV. It is especially important that you tell current and recent partners. Health professionals can tell your sexual and/or drug-using partner(s) for you or help you tell them yourself. All of your present and past partners should be referred for counseling and testing. If they are HIV positive, prompt medical care may delay the onset of AIDS and prevent some life-threatening conditions. Also, they may unknowingly infect others. You have an important role to play in helping stop the spread of HIV infection.

Telling people about your test result can be a very sensitive matter. You may want to discuss it with your testing counselor. If you choose to tell your partners yourself, do not make accusations. Be prepared for partners to become upset or hostile. Urge them to be counseled and tested as soon as possible.

If my test is negative, do I still need to change my behavior?

If your test is negative, you should protect yourself against future infection. To avoid infection through sex, abstain or maintain a relationship in which both partners are faithful. Routine use of condoms will greatly reduce your chances of getting HIV. And, if you do drugs, don’t share needles.

Can people who test positive still have children?

If you are a woman who has tested positive or if your sexual partner has tested positive, you should strongly consider the consequences of pregnancy. Talk with your doctor about your plans.

The Facts for Life

  • AIDS is a disease caused by HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus).
  • A person infected with HIV may have no symptoms but can still infect others.
  • HIV is spread through sex with an infected person. Both men and women can spread HIV.
  • To avoid HIV infection through sex, don’t have sex, or have sex only with a partner who isn’t infected and has sex only with you.
  • Using condoms correctly every time you have sex reduces the risk of HIV infection.
  • An infected woman can pass HIV to her baby during pregnancy or when the baby is being born.
  • HIV is spread by sharing needles.
  • Donating blood is safe.
  • HIV is not spread by hugs, handshakes or kisses.
  • HIV is not spread by mosquitoes.
  • There is no cure or vaccine for HIV.

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

Talk with your doctor or local health department. You also can call the Illinois Department of Public Health toll-free AIDS/HIV & STD hotline at 1-800-243-2437 or TTY-1-800-782-0423.

All of your questions will be answered in strict confidence.

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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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