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What It's Like to Live With HIV/AIDS: Myths and Facts

Having HIV Means You Have AIDS

Myth. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that destroys the body's CD4 immune cells, which help fight disease. With the right medications, you can have HIV for years or decades without HIV progressing to AIDS. AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is diagnosed when you have HIV as well as certain opportunistic infections or your CD4 cell count drops below 200.

It's Difficult to Get HIV From Casual Contact

Fact. You can't catch or spread HIV from hugging someone, using the same towel, or sharing the same glass. It's very rare to get HIV from a blood transfusion -- the U.S. blood supply is carefully tested. However, you can spread the disease from having unprotected sex, sharing needles, or getting a tattoo from unsterilized equipment.

You Have Just a Few Years to Live

Myth. The truth is that many people live for decades with HIV or AIDS and have a normal or near-normal life span. You can help prevent HIV from progressing to AIDS by seeing your doctor regularly and following your doctor's guidance.

You'll Know You Have HIV Because of Your Symptoms

Myth. Some people don't show any signs of HIV for years after being infected. Many can have some symptoms within 10 days to a few weeks after infection. These first symptoms are similar to the flu or mononucleosis and may include fever, fatigue, rash, and sore throat. They usually disappear after a few weeks and you may not have symptoms again for several years. The only way to tell you have HIV is to get tested.

HIV Can Be Cured

Myth. At this time, there is no cure for HIV in most cases, but treatment can keep virus levels low and help maintain your immune system. Some drugs interfere with proteins HIV needs to copy itself; others block the virus from entering or inserting its genetic material into your immune cells. Your doctor will consider your general health, the health of your immune system, and the amount of virus in your body to decide when to start treatment.

Anyone Can Get HIV

Fact. About 50,000 people in the U.S. get HIV each year, and 15,500 people with AIDS die each year. Anyone can get HIV -- men, women, and children, people who are gay or straight. Men who have sex with men make up about 29,000 new HIV infections each year. Women account for over 8,000 new infections. African-Americans continue to experience the most severe burden of HIV, compared with other races and ethnicities.

Sex Is Safe When Both Partners Have HIV

Myth. Just because you and your partner both have HIV, doesn't mean you should forget about protection when having sex. Using a condom or other latex barrier can help protect you from other sexually transmitted diseases as well as other strains of HIV, which may be resistant to anti-HIV medication. Even if you are being treated and feel well you can still infect others.

You Can Have a Baby if You Are HIV-Positive

Fact. Infected mothers can indeed pass HIV to their babies during pregnancy or delivery. However, you can lower the risk by working with your doctor and getting the appropriate care and medication. Pregnant women with HIV can take medications to treat their infection and to help protect their babies against the virus.

You Can’t Avoid Other HIV-Related Infections

Myth. Due to weakened immune systems, people with HIV can be vulnerable to infections like pneumocystis pneumonia, tuberculosis, candidiasis, cytomegalovirus, and toxoplasmosis. The best way to reduce the risk is to take your HIV medications. Some infections can be prevented with drugs. You can lessen exposure to some germs by avoiding undercooked meat, litter boxes, and water that may be contaminated.

You Can't Get Lifesaving Drugs Without Insurance

Myth. There are government programs, nonprofit groups, and some pharmaceutical companies that may help cover of the cost of HIV/AIDS drugs. But be aware: These drug "cocktails" can cost up to $15,000 a year. Talk to your local HIV/AIDS service organization to learn about financial help.

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on April 15, 2014

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Quick Facts

  • More than 1 million people are living with HIV in the United States.
  • Of those 1 million people, 1 in 5 doesn't know they are infected, according to the CDC.
  • 31% of new HIV cases each year are in people infected via heterosexual contact.

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