Newly Diagnosed: What You Need to Know About HIV

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

You just found out you have HIV. It’s natural to have questions -- and lots of them.

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about a new HIV diagnosis.

What does it mean to be HIV-positive?

You were exposed to HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, and it’s now living in your body. 

Without treatment, HIV can kill your immune cells. This can make it harder for your body to fight diseases and infections.

Does this mean I have AIDS?

No. AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is the name of the most advanced stage of HIV.

Thanks to HIV medications, most people with HIV in the U.S. never get AIDS.

What kind of symptoms should I expect?

HIV can affect you differently from one stage of the disease to the next.

Symptoms in the earliest stage include:

  • Fever or other flu-like symptoms
  • Tiredness
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Mouth ulcers (sores)

The second stage of HIV is called the "clinical latency stage." Latent means dormant or hidden, so you may not see any signs. But if you do, they may be similar to early-stage symptoms and are likely to be mild.

If your condition does turn into AIDS, you can get very ill. Among other things, you may:

  • Lose weight quickly
  • Feel sick all the time
  • Be extremely tired
  • Have diarrhea that lasts more than a week
  • Get sores in your mouth or anus
  • Have blotchy skin
  • Have trouble with memory and thinking
  • Get a fever that keeps coming back
  • Have shortness of breath and cough

Are my family and friends at risk?

Probably not. Unless someone has had sex with you or shared needles or other drug equipment with you, the odds of infection are very low. HIV-positive pregnant women can give it to their newborn.

It’s also possible to pass HIV if your blood gets in someone’s mouth or into a cut on their skin. But that’s rare. To be safe, everyone close to you should be tested for HIV. The CDC recommends that everyone in the U.S. ages 15 to 64 be tested for the virus at least once.

Can I have keep having sex?

Yes, with some careful steps.

If you’re taking HIV medications called antiretroviral drugs, your virus count may be low enough so there’s almost no chance of you passing HIV to others. Take your HIV medication as prescribed, and get lab tests to check that your "viral load" is undetectable.

Condoms also can protect your partner from catching the virus. And if they take medication called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), the drugs work very well to keep HIV from taking hold inside their body. 

When should I get treatment?

You should start antiretroviral therapy (ART) as soon as possible. Taken every day as prescribed, these drugs will keep you healthy and will block HIV from spreading to others. The longer you wait, the higher the chances that you may get AIDS later and the greater the odds that you may pass HIV to someone else.

What does HIV treatment look like?

Depending on your symptoms and the stage of your HIV, you’ll take a mixture of different ART drugs. The medications aren’t a cure. But they can keep your HIV in check for decades and make you less likely to pass HIV to someone else.

What’s my long-term outlook?

If you don’t have AIDS and you start treatment right away, you can live with HIV for decades. A lot of HIV-positive people live just as long as those who don’t have it.