The Basics

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is an incurable virus that weakens the immune system by attacking the body’s T-cells (a type of white blood cell that helps ward off diseases, bacteria, and viruses). If not aggressively treated, HIV can cause acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

How You Get It

HIV is notspread as easily as some other STDs. It’s transmitted through bodily fluids: semen, pre-ejaculate, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, blood, and breast milk. However these fluids must come in direct contact with a person’s mucous membrane (a layer of skin that lines body openings like the nose or mouth). This is why people often get HIV through unprotected anal, vaginal, or (rarely) oral sex. Unprotected anal sex is particularly risky, especially if you’re receiving. It’s also possible to spread the virus if one of the fluids comes in contact with damaged tissue (like through a cut or an open sore) or the bloodstream.

You might recall that in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, there was a lot of concern about blood transfusions. But in 1985, they started testing all blood donations for HIV, so any blood you receive at a hospital is safe.

What’s It Like?

The first two to four weeks after being infected, you’ll probably feel fluish. Symptoms can range from fever, chills, and fatigue to muscle aches or a sore throat. These will eventually disappear, and you’ll enter the clinical latency period—also called chronic HIV infection—during which you may not have any symptoms at all. This stage can last anywhere from 10 years to several decades, depending on whether you’re on meds.

The third and final phase is AIDS, which causes more flu-like symptoms—chills, fever, weakness—and weight loss. People with AIDS are also more susceptible to other illnesses because their immune systems are so damaged. Without treatment, they can expect to live about three years.

How Serious Is It?

OK, now that all that scary stuff is out of the way, we can talk about HIV and AIDS in 2016. While HIV is still a very real threat, things have also changed a lot since the 80s and 90s.

“People who have HIV can go on to have normal, healthy sexual relationships,” says Yesmean Wahdan, M.D., associate medical director at Bayer Women’s Healthcare. “It’s just a matter of staying on top of your treatment regimen and having the conversation with your partner about your condition.”

People who have HIV can go on to have normal, healthy sexual relationships.

If HIV is caught early and the infected person is started on antiretroviral therapy (ART), their viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood) can become undetectable, making it hard to pass on to another person when practicing safe sex.

What Can I Do?

Practice safe sex, abstain from intravenous drug use, and use pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) if you’re at risk of getting HIV.

“The best defense is a good offense,” says Sherry Ross, M.D., a women’s health expert based in Santa Monica. “Researchers think PrEP could be a public health strategy to control widespread epidemics of common STIs.”

PrEP is a combination of two medicines—tenofovir and emtricitabine—that helps block the infection. Taken correctly, it can lower your risk of getting HIV by 90 percent. However, it is not a vaccine, and while it’s not 100 percent foolproof, it is light-years ahead of where we were only a few decades ago.

The number of people infected with three major STDs is at an all-time high (yikes!). We’re tackling common misconceptions about STIs and STDs to help #ShattertheSTIgma. Because getting tested should be NBD.