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HIV 101 / FAQ

What do HIV and AIDS stand for?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus:

  • Human: HIV is transferred from one human to another.
  • Immunodeficiency: HIV attacks the immune system, which is the system in your body that protects you from sicknesses and disease. As the immune system becomes more and more weak from HIV attacking it, your body has a much harder time fighting off infections and keeping you healthy.
  • Virus: The tiny particle of genetic code that causes sickness. HIV is a special type of virus–a retrovirus. This means it puts a copy of its own genetic code into the host’s DNA.

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome:

  • Acquired: Meaning you have to get it from somewhere. AIDS does not show up all at once. You cannot “catch” AIDS from someone else–it only comes from years of having untreated HIV.
  • Immune: HIV attacks the immune system, slowly causing damage and lowering numbers of immune cells.
  • Deficiency: Meaning “a lack of.” As the number of immune cells drop from HIV attacking them, the weakness in the immune system grows larger and larger. After dropping below a certain point, this weakness can be classified as AIDS (see more info below).
  • Syndrome: A set of symptoms that show up in the body together because of a disease.
What does HIV do to the body?

HIV attacks and damages certain cells in the immune system. You need your immune system to be in good shape so it can fight off diseases. With HIV in the body, these immune cells drop in numbers and leave the immune system open to outside infection. It’s sort of like playing a game of soccer with no goalie to protect the goal.

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?

HIV is a virus that damages the immune system, which can eventually lead to AIDS (without treatment). AIDS is a secondary diagnosis which describes late-stage HIV. In fact, the term “AIDS” is used less and less today, with “late-stage HIV” more commonly being used instead.

AIDS is classified when a person living with HIV has a CD4 cell count which falls below 200. A CD4 cell is a type of immune cell which HIV kills off. People in good health often have a CD4 cell count of over 1000. It can take between 7-10 years of living with untreated HIV to progress to this point. However, it’s important to remember that medication is now available which stops this progression entirely. If a person receives treatment for their HIV, their CD4 cell count will not drop and they will not progress to late-stage HIV. 

What does HIV positive and negative mean?

HIV positive, or HIV+, means the virus is in the body. HIV negative, or HIV-, means the virus is not in the body.

Why should I protect myself from HIV?

There is still no cure for HIV. While we now have wonderful medications that can help people live a normal life with HIV, sometimes it can be difficult. Staying healthy while living with HIV requires taking medication daily, making sure you attend all of your doctors’ appointments, and keeping your health a priority. Not taking HIV medication daily can lead to drug resistance, which means medications may not work how they’re supposed to anymore. You also have the responsibility to share your status with any sexual partners, which can be difficult conversation to bring up for many people. HIV is not the death sentence it used to be, but prevention is still important.

Can you tell me about symptoms for HIV/AIDS?

Often times, HIV has no symptoms up to 7-10 years after infection. This is because the symptoms that go along with HIV and AIDS are usually symptoms of other infections or sicknesses that have made their way into the body once the immune system is weakened. There are some people who may experience a flu-like illness a few weeks after becoming infected (during the seroconversion period), but not everybody does. In fact, most people do not. If someone has had a possible exposure to HIV through having unprotected sex or sharing needles, they need an HIV test – don’t wait for symptoms!

How does someone get HIV?

There are three main ways to get HIV:

  1. Having unprotected sex (especially anal or vaginal sex, though oral can be a risk too)
  2. Sharing needles
  3. From a mother to a baby during pregnancy, labor, or breastfeeding
What body fluids do/do not contain HIV?

The only body fluids that can spread HIV from one person to another are:

  • Blood
  • Semen and pre-ejaculate (pre-cum)
  • Vaginal fluids
  • Breast Milk

You cannot get HIV from saliva/spit, urine, tears, or sweat. That means, you cannot get HIV from: sharing drinking glasses or eating utensils, door knobs, hugging, holding hands, using the same bathroom, or any other kinds of contact that do not involve a direct transmission of blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or breast milk. You also can’t get HIV from mosquitoes.

How can I protect myself from HIV?

You do not HAVE to get HIV! The only 100% way to protect yourself from HIV is to not have sex, or share needles. However, celibacy (not having sex) is not for everyone, and that’s okay! You have to choose what works for you. Here are some other ways to keep yourself HIV-free:

1. Use a barrier EVERY time you have sex to significantly reduce your risk for HIV.

  • For vaginal sex – use a male condom or a “female” (insertive) condom.
  • For anal sex – use a male condom. You can also use an insertive or “female” condom, but you may want to remove the internal ring before intercourse.
  • For oral sex – use a male condom on a penis, or a dental dam (square latex sheet) on the vagina or anus (see instructions here). If you don’t have a dental dam, you can also cut a  condom open and lay it across the area, or even use plastic wrap. It’s better than nothing at all! There are flavored condoms and dental dams to make using them more pleasant.
    Remember, condoms must be used PROPERLY to be effective. (see the tips at the bottom of the page). The condom should go on the penis from the very beginning of the sexual encounter, not just right before the male penetrates the vagina or anus. Males often have fluid, called pre-cum or pre-ejaculatory fluid, that can come out of the penis all throughout sex. This fluid can contain HIV and other STDs, as well as lower counts of sperm that can lead to pregnancy.

2. Look into options like PrEP. 

  • PrEP is a medication you can take to help keep you negative for HIV. It is a prescription medication that is often taken daily, and can decrease your chances of becoming infected with HIV by up to 99%. Some people know it by the brand name, Truvada. To find a doctor who prescribes PrEP near you, go to and search by zip code. You also search based on clinics that require and don’t require insurance. You can also read more about PrEP here.

3. Don’t share needles.

  • This one may seem obvious or simple to many people, but it’s not always as easy as it seems for those in specific circumstances such as addiction. People often share or re-use needles because they are desperate and feel they have no other choice in the moment. Our goal is to help people stay HIV free, not judge them. The following advice is an attempt at harm reduction (we would rather someone stay HIV negative and use clean needles than share needles and become infected!). Learn more about this approach here.
  • We know that it can be very difficult or almost impossible to find clean needles, especially if you’re in the middle of active addiction. There is no federal law that prevents pharmacies from selling you clean syringes to you without a prescription, but some pharmacies may choose to withhold sales without a prescription on their own. If you cannot find a store that will sell clean needles, there may be a syringe service program (SSP) or Syringe Exchange Program (SEP) near you. You can search for one at this website:

If you can’t get clean needles and are ABSOLUTELY going to share or re-use, rinse your needles with bleach and water.

If you are struggling with an addiction and are ready to get clean, there is help available. You can start by calling SAMSA’s national helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Learn more info about their helpline here.

How do I use a condom PROPERLY?

Below are tips on proper condom use. It’s still a good idea to read the instructions on the condom package too!

  • Check the expiration date on the condom before you open it. Do not use it if it has expired. Also, do not store your condoms in somewhere that gets too hot or cold, like the car or your wallet. It’s okay to put them in a wallet while you’re carrying them somewhere else–just don’t leave them in there all the time. If you do, they may break more easily!
  • Check the package for any rips, holes, or tears. Then carefully tear the condom package open – never use scissors or teeth, you may rip the condom.
  • Make sure to pinch the tip of the condom (called the reservoir tip) as you roll it down to the base of the penis. If this tip is full of air during ejaculation, the condom may be more likely to break. pinching the tip gives more room for this fluid.
  • You can add any water-based or silicone based lubricant you’d like to decrease friction during sex. Friction makes the condom more likely to break, and can cause microscopic tears inside of the vagina or anus of the receiving partner. Lubricant can help prevent this–especially important for anal sex! You can add lubricant to the outside and inside of the condom. If you put some inside, just use a few drops. Adding some to the inside can also increase sensation for the person wearing the condom, which may make them more likely to want to use them. DO NOT use oil-based products like Vaseline or coconut oil. These can actually break down the condom, causing it to rip–Stay away from these!
  • If you put a condom on the penis and realize that you have it inside-out (it won’t roll down), DO NOT flip it over, it may already have pre-cum on it that you cannot see. Throw the condom away and get a new one. Your best bet is to make sure it is going on correctly in the first place by rolling it out a little before placing it on the penis. If it doesn’t unroll easily, it may be inside-out.
  • As the partner wearing the condom withdraws their penis, make sure they’re holding the base of the condom in place. Some penises can start to lose their erection quickly after sex, and this means the condom can slide off more easily. Move away from the partner before pulling off the condom (to prevent any accidental spillage). Tie the condom off and toss it in the trash can.

Remember, ANY condom is better than none at all. For example: if all you have is an expired condom and you can’t get any more, it’s still better to use that one than to use nothing if you’re going to have sex regardless. This is called harm reduction.

Alamance Cares always has free condoms available at our office if you need more. Call us during business hours to make an appointment to come by!

To learn how to use female condoms, click here. To learn how to use dental dams, click here.