Frequently Asked Questions About HIV and AIDS

Medically Reviewed by Jonathan E. Kaplan, MD on February 12, 2024
7 min read

Do you know someone who has HIV or AIDS? Or maybe you've heard about a celebrity who has one of these conditions? Here are some quick facts:

  • The most common way to get HIV or AIDS is by having sex with someone who has it. But there are other ways, too.
  • AIDS is caused by a virus called HIV.
  • If you've got AIDS, your body finds it harder and harder to fight off infections.

People get HIV through contact with body fluids that come from someone who has it. The most common ways that someone can get HIV are by:

  • Having sex (anal, vaginal, or oral) with a person who has HIV without using a condom
  • Sharing drug needles or other drug equipment with someone who has HIV
  • Using the same needle as someone with HIV when you get a tattoo

Women with HIV can pass it to their babies before or during birth, and through breastfeeding.

You don't have to be gay to get an HIV infection. You can get HIV from having sex -- without a condom -- with someone of the opposite sex.

The best way to avoid getting HIV is to not have sex. If you do have sex, you can protect yourself with these steps:

  • Always use a condom when having sex.
  • Exclusively have sex with one person who is not infected.
  • Do not use alcohol or drugs. That way you can make smart choices based on clear thinking.
  • Consider PrEP, which stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis. It is a pill or injection you can take when you don't have HIV but suspect you may become exposed.

Activities like hugging, kissing, and rubbing against one another don't spread HIV as long as no open sores are being touched. Also, you can't give yourself HIV by masturbating.

When used consistently and correctly, they're very good at stopping the spread of HIV during sex. Additionally, they can also prevent other STIs such as syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. 

But condom use can't give you perfect protection. If either partner is allergic to latex, try plastic (polyurethane) condoms. You can get them for both men and women.

Yes, it's possible -- whether you're giving or getting oral sex. While no one knows exactly how risky it is, evidence suggests it has less of a risk than unprotected anal or vaginal sex.

You should use protection for oral sex, too: A latex condom on a man, and a latex barrier between a woman's vagina and their partner's mouth. This barrier could be a natural rubber latex sheet, a dental dam, or a cut-open condom that makes a square. In a pinch, you can even use plastic food wrap.

Yes. In fact, anal sex without a condom is very risky behavior. Either sex partner can become infected with HIV.

When you have anal sex, use a latex condom. They're more likely to break during anal than vaginal sex, so also use a lot of water-based lubricant to lower the chance of that happening.

Yes, if the person who gives you the tattoo uses the same needle that was used on someone who has HIV. That's because any activity that can result in blood getting passed from one person to another carries a risk of HIV infection.

No. HIV is not passed on in sweat, saliva, or tears. Some other things to know:

  • Body fluids that contain the highest concentration of HIV are blood, semen, vaginal fluid, breast milk, and other fluids that contain blood.
  • You can't catch it from casual contact like you can a cold or the flu.
  • Holding hands or touching someone's skin won't cause you to get the virus.
  • Sharing a drinking glass with someone does not spread the virus.
  • Open mouth (French) kissing is very low risk for getting the virus unless there are open sores in the mouth or there is blood present.

Many people who have HIV don't have any symptoms at all for many years. The only way to know if you're infected is to get tested.

Don't wait for symptoms to show up. If you find out you're infected soon after it happens, you'll have more options for treatment and care to help prevent you from getting sick.

Most often, a technician or doctor will draw blood from your vein and check it to see if there are antibodies for HIV. You can also test other body fluids -- oral fluid (not saliva, collected from your mouth using a special device) or urine -- but these aren't as sensitive or accurate as traditional blood tests. Some rapid screening tests can give results in 20-60 minutes.

Current blood tests can find both antibodies and a part of the virus itself called an antigen. These could give a positive result as soon as 3 weeks after HIV exposure.

Home testing kits found at drugstores are really home collection kits. You prick your finger with a special device, place drops of blood on a specially treated card, and then mail the card in for testing at a licensed lab.

If any of these screening tests say you're positive, follow up with a doctor and more testing to confirm it.

The best thing to do is talk to your health care provider. They will:

  • Determine whether or not you should be tested
  • Explain the testing procedure
  • Describe your options for testing
  • Help you locate the nearest testing site

Common places for testing include your local health department, a clinic, your doctor's office, a hospital, and other sites set up specifically for HIV testing.

You can also check or, or call 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) 24 hours a day to find somewhere close to you. The call is confidential.

Most people will develop enough antigens or antibodies to test positive within 2 to 8 weeks after they're exposed to the virus. The average is 20 days to 25 days. Even so, there's a chance it could take longer. If you think you've been exposed and your HIV test within the first 3 months was negative, get another test at 6 months. If you think you are infected, however, see a doctor right away. They can help guide you in the testing.

The test will tell you only about yourself. Your sexual partner could still have HIV, even if your test is negative.

HIV-positive mothers who get treatment during pregnancy have a much lower chance of passing HIV to their baby before, during, or after birth.

The sooner you start treatment, the more effective it is.

That depends on where you are. In some states, you need your parents’ permission before you can get a test.

Most clinics are confidential. No one else will be told about your test results. You can call a clinic before going there to find out what its policy is on keeping your test confidential.

It's a good idea, though, to talk with an adult you trust about your concerns. A trusted adult can help you sort through your options. The adult can also help you think about your behavior and what to do about behavior that puts you at risk.

Prompt, early medical treatment and a healthy lifestyle can help you stay well. We have more and better treatments today, and people are living longer and with a better quality of life than ever before. In fact, depending on what else is going on with their health, HIV-infected persons who get on and stay on their medicines can expect to live almost as long as people who don’t have HIV.

You'll need to keep your doctor's appointments, take your HIV medicines exactly as directed, and take steps so others don't get the virus from you.

Before HIV medicines became available, Scientists used to think that about half the people with HIV developed AIDS within 10 years after they were infected. However, current drug therapies have dramatically changed the outlook for people living with HIV. If you start HIV medicines early in the course of your infection, keep your medical appointments, and stay on your medicines, you may never develop HIV-related illnesses.

When you get infected with HIV, your body's immune system gets weaker. The immune system is what makes your body able to fight off infection and disease.

It takes time for this to happen. But when it does, it can lead to AIDS and be fatal.

When a person has AIDS, the immune system is so weak it can't fight off viruses or bacteria. And it can't prevent certain kinds of cancer the way a healthy immune system can.

While people can die quickly once they develop AIDS, HIV infections can be treated. It's possible with the right treatment to live a long, healthy life.

  • Never have sex without using a condom.
  • Do not use illegal drugs or get tattoos with unclean needles.
  • If you think you may be infected with HIV, see a doctor right away. You can also call 1-800-CDC-INFO (232-4636).