Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The virus weakens a person's ability to fight infections and cancer. People with HIV are said to have AIDS when they develop certain infections or cancers or when their CD4 (T-cell) count is less than 200. CD4 count is determined by a blood test in a doctor's office.
Having HIV does not always mean that you have AIDS. It can take many years for people with the virus to develop AIDS. HIV and AIDS cannot be cured. However, with the medications available today, it is possible to have a normal lifespan with little or minimal interruption in quality of life. There are ways to help people stay healthy and live longer.
HIV attacks and destroys a type of white blood cell called a CD4 cell, commonly called the T-cell. This cell's main function is to fight disease. When a person's CD4 cell count gets low, they are more susceptible to illnesses.
What Is AIDS?
AIDS is the more advanced stage of HIV infection. When the immune system CD4 cells drop to a very low level, a person's ability to fight infection is lost. In addition, there are several conditions that occur in people with HIV infection with this degree of immune system failure -- these are called AIDS-defining illnesses.
According to the CDC, about 1.1 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with AIDS since the disease was first diagnosed in 1981. The CDC estimates that that 636,000 people have died from the disease in the U.S.
How Do People Get HIV?
A person gets HIV when an infected person's body fluids (blood, semen, fluids from the vagina or breast milk) enter his or her bloodstream. The virus can enter the blood through linings in the mouth, anus, or sex organs (the penis and vagina), or through broken skin.
Both men and women can spread HIV. A person with HIV can feel OK and still give the virus to others. Pregnant women with HIV also can give the virus to their babies.