7 need-to-know facts about HIV

March 13, 2023 | by Julie L. Jones, M.D.

More than 1 million people are living with HIV in this country. Thousands of U.S. teens and young adults get infected with HIV each year. Yet more than half of young people who are infected don’t know they are.

HIV can be a tough subject to discuss with your kids, but it’s something you need to do — and early. Education about HIV and how it is spread is an essential part of prevention. By the time your kid enters puberty, they should know the facts about HIV so they don’t engage in behavior that puts them at risk.

Here are 7 need-to-know facts about HIV to share with your kids:

  1. HIV is a virus. AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that, if left untreated, can lead to the disease AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). HIV hurts the immune system. It affects a type of white blood cell called the T cell, which helps the body fight off germs and diseases. Without treatment, HIV will eventually wear down the immune system so it can no longer fight off infections. The virus has progressed to AIDS when signs of serious infection are present.

  2. Once you have HIV, you have it for life. Although there is no cure for HIV, there are powerful new medicines (antiretroviral therapy) that can control the virus. Today, someone infected with HIV who receives proper treatment can stay relatively healthy and symptom-free for many years. Researchers are working on developing a vaccine that may one day prevent HIV infection.

  3. HIV can be prevented. HIV cannot be transmitted except when certain body fluids are exchanged. Practicing safe sex and not sharing needles or syringes can help stop the spread of HIV. Since there is no cure for HIV, prevention is so important. Two main ways to prevent HIV include:
    • Abstain from sex. Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent HIV. If you have sex, make smart choices. Limit your number of sexual partners. Ensure your partner is HIV-negative and monogamous. And always practice safer sex. This means avoiding contact with sexual fluids by using condoms the right way when having oral, anal or vaginal sex.
    • Don’t inject drugs. If you do, only use new, clean needles and never share needles (including needles for piercing and tattooing).

  4. HIV is not spread like a cold or the flu. HIV is spread through direct contact with HIV-infected body fluids, like blood, semen, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids and breast milk. The most common ways HIV is passed from one person to another are:
    • Unprotected sexual contact (oral, vaginal or anal sex)
    • Re-using or sharing needles or syringes
    • Mother-to-child (during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding)

    HIV is not spread through air, water, sweat, tears, saliva, urine or feces. It is not transmitted by casual contact, such as hugging, holding or shaking hands, casual kissing, dancing, sharing food/drinks, or sharing exercise equipment, toilets, or a swimming pool.

  5. Someone can be infected with HIV and not know it. You can be HIV-positive and not have any symptoms for years. Some people develop flu-like symptoms a few days to a few weeks after being infected, but these symptoms usually go away after several days. If untreated, an HIV-positive person will eventually begin to feel sick and may experience: swollen lymph nodes, weight loss, fevers that come and go, infections in the mouth, diarrhea or unexplained fatigue.

  6. You can't tell if someone has HIV just by looking at them. One of the reasons that HIV is so dangerous is that a person can have the virus for a long time without knowing it. In fact, most people with HIV infection do not look sick and don’t know they are infected. The only way to know if a person is infected is if they have a HIV test.

  7. You can get tested for HIV at almost any clinic or hospital in the country. Testing can be anonymous or confidential. The HIV test can be either a blood test or a swab of the inside of the cheek. Depending on the test, results may take from a few minutes to several days. Find a testing site near you.

Hopefully one day, a cure for HIV infection will be found and AIDS will no longer exist. Until then, teach your children the facts so they don’t put themselves at risk.

Learn more about HIV/AIDS.

Learn more about children’s services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Julie Miaczynski, MD is a family medicine physician with Edward Medical Group.

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