• What Is HIV?

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    Reviewed By: Ninel Z Gregori MD
    Mar. 27, 2020

    HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. This virus causes the body’s immune system to break down. Your immune system fights off illness and infection and is important for a healthy body.

    HIV attacks important white blood cells in your immune system called lymphocytes, or T-cells. T-cells identify and destroy invading organisms in the body. Once attached to the T-cell, HIV multiplies and destroys the cell. When your body loses enough T-cells, it can become very sick. It gets infections that a healthy person’s immune system would normally fight off. This includes infections such as colds, flu and other viruses.

    What is AIDS?

    AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. HIV causes AIDS. Someone has AIDS when their immune system is no longer able to keep them healthy. For someone with HIV, the process of the virus destroying T-cells and multiplying may go on for years. This is why many people infected with HIV do not get sick with AIDS until years later.

    How do you get HIV?

    HIV lives and reproduces in human blood and other body fluids. Someone can become infected with HIV if these infected fluids enter their body.

    These fluids can contain high levels of HIV:

    • blood
    • semen
    • pre-seminal fluid
    • breast milk
    • vaginal fluids
    • rectal (anal) mucous

    Other bodily fluids and waste products generally don’t have enough HIV in them to infect you, unless blood is present in them. This includes:

    • nasal fluid
    • saliva
    • sweat
    • tears
    • feces
    • urine
    • vomit

    HIV can be found in tears of infected people, but no cases of AIDS have ever been reported from tear contact. Ophthalmologists are careful about cleaning instruments and lenses that come in contact with tears.