The Most Frequently Asked HIV/AIDS Questions

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According to the National Center for Health Statistics, HIV/AIDS is one of the top 10 leading causes of death for African Americans. African Americans account for more than half (54 percent) of estimated new HIV infections in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that a quarter of those living with HIV, more than 250,000 do not know they are infected.

Throughout the years, there are still so many misconceptions, myths and rumors – which may or may not be contributing to why HIV/AIDS is still such a serious issue. Are unasked questions part of what’s standing in the way of proper protection?

1. What is HIV? Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is the virus that causes AIDS. HIV/AIDS weakens a person’s ability to fight infections and cancer. HIV transmission can occur with unprotected sex or with needle sharing. Symptoms of HIV vary widely. A person may have HIV symptoms or AIDS symptoms without knowing it until they get HIV testing.

2. What is AIDS? Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, AIDS, is caused by HIV. A person is diagnosed with AIDS when their immune system is too weak to fight off infections. Since AIDS was first identified in the early 1980s, an unprecedented number of people have been affected by the global AIDS epidemic. Today, there are an estimated 34 million people living with HIV and AIDS worldwide.

3. How is HIV spread? HIV transmission can occur when blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, vaginal fluid, or breast milk from an infected person enters the body of an uninfected person.

These are the most common ways that HIV is transmitted from one person to another:

  • By having sex (anal, vaginal, or oral) with an HIV-infected person
  • By sharing needles or equipment with an injection drug user who is infected with HIV
  • From HIV-infected women to their babies before or during birth, or through breastfeeding after birth.

4. How long does it take for HIV to become AIDS? Scientists previously have estimated that about half the people with HIV will develop AIDS within 10 years after becoming infected. However, the length of time it takes for AIDS symptoms to appear varies greatly from person to person, and depends on many factors, including a person’s health status and behaviors. Also, advances in drug therapies and other medical treatments are dramatically changing the outlook for people with HIV. As with other diseases, early detection of infection allows for more options for treatment and preventive health care.

5. How can I tell if I’m infected? The only way to know if you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection. You cannot rely on symptoms to know whether or not you are infected. Many people who are infected with HIV do not have any symptoms at all for many years.

For information on where to find an HIV testing site, visit the National HIV Testing Resources web site at or call CDC-INFO24 Hours/Day at (800) CDC-INFO (232-4636), (888) 232-6348 (TTY).

6. What are the most effective ways to be tested for infection? In most cases the test is performed on blood drawn from a vein. The blood is checked for the presence of antibodies to HIV. Other body fluids can also be tested to screen for HIV.

These include:

  • Oral Fluid Tests: These tests use oral fluid (not saliva) that is collected from the mouth using a special collection device.
  • Urine Tests: These tests use urine instead of blood. The sensitivity and specificity (accuracy) of the oral and urine tests are less than that of the traditional blood tests.
  • Rapid Tests: A rapid test is a screening test that produces very quick results (approximately 20-60 minutes).
  • Home Testing Kits: In July of 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved OraQuick, the first home test kit for HIV infection. Individuals can purchase the kit at stores and pharmacies and even on-line to test themselves in the privacy of their homes. Chain drugstores, including Duane Reade and CVS, carry the test for around $40.

Departments, clinics, offices of private doctors, hospitals, and other sites set up specifically to provide HIV testing. For information on where to find an HIV testing site, visit the National HIV Testing Resources web site at or call CDC-INFO, (800) CDC-INFO (232-4636), (888) 232-6348 (TTY).

7. How long after possible infection should I wait to get tested? It can take some time for the immune system to produce enough antibodies for the HIV test to detect. This time period can vary from person to person. Most people will develop detectable antibodies within two to eight weeks (the average is 20 days to 25 days). Even so, there is a chance that some people will take longer to develop detectable antibodies. If the initial negative HIV test was conducted within the first three months after possible exposure, repeat testing should be done at six months.

8. What happens if I test positive? If you test positive for HIV, the sooner you take steps to protect your health, the better. Early medical treatment and a healthy lifestyle can help you stay well. Prompt medical care may delay the onset of AIDS and prevent some life-threatening conditions. There is much you can do to stay healthy. Learn all that you can about maintaining good health.

9. Is it possible to be infected with HIV from taking the HIV test itself? Some claim that the HIV test itself can give you the virus. But unless a clinic reuses a needle that was previously used on someone with HIV (a highly unlikely scenario that has never been reported), there is no way that testing for HIV could cause the infection.

10. How effective are latex condoms in HIV prevention? Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing heterosexual sexual transmission of HIV. It should be noted that condom use cannot provide absolute protection against HIV. The surest way to avoid transmission of HIV is to abstain from sexual intercourse or to be in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and you know is uninfected.

Studies have shown that latex condoms are very effective, though not perfect, in preventing HIV transmission when used correctly and consistently. If either partner is allergic to latex, plastic (polyurethane) condoms for either the male or female can be used.

11. Can you get HIV from oral sex? Yes, it is possible for either partner to become infected with HIV through performing or receiving oral sex. While no one knows exactly what the degree of risk is, evidence suggests that the risk is less than that of unprotected anal or vaginal sex.

If your partner is female, use a latex barrier (such as a natural rubber latex sheet, a dental dam, or a cut-open condom that makes a square) between your mouth and the vagina. A latex barrier such as a dental dam reduces the risk of blood or vaginal fluids entering your mouth. Plastic food wrap also can be used as a barrier.

12. Can you get HIV from anal sex? Yes. In fact, unprotected (without a condom) anal sex is considered to be very risky behavior. It is possible for either sex partner to become infected with HIV during anal sex.

Not having sex is the most effective way to avoid HIV. If people choose to have anal sex, they should use a latex condom. Most of the time, condoms work well. However, condoms are more likely to break during anal sex than during vaginal sex. Thus, even with a condom, anal sex can be risky. A person should use generous amounts of water-based lubricant in addition to the condom to reduce the chances of the condom breaking.

13. If you test positive for HIV, will you inevitably die from AIDS? In the early years of HIV/AIDS, an HIV diagnosis often meant the infected person would develop AIDS and die from complications of the disease within a matter of years, but this is no longer true. Medications, combined with lifestyle changes and complementary therapies that support the body’s ability to keep the virus in check, can keep an HIV-infected person from developing AIDS or the fatal complications associated with it for many years.

14. Can catch HIV from a toilet seat? The HIV virus cannot be transmitted by casual contact, from a toilet seat, a doorknob, a fork, or a handshake, for that matter. The only known HIV transmission methods include unprotected sex, intravenous drug use, exposure to blood or bodily fluids from an infected person, from mother to child in pregnancy, and through blood transfusions if the blood came from an HIV infected person. (Transmission of the virus did happen through blood transfusions or blood products in the 1980s before HIV testing became routine for all donated blood, but is highly unlikely to happen in a modern medical facility.)

15. Is there is a cure for HIV? There are medications available to suppress the virus in infected individuals and to lower their viral load. Such treatments can prolong or prevent the development of AIDS for years or even a lifetime. However, researchers have not found a cure for HIV that would eliminate the virus from an infected person’s body entirely.

16. Can mosquitoes spread HIV? While mosquitoes can spread a number of illnesses such as West Nile Virus or malaria, there are no known cases of HIV transmission through mosquito bites. If mosquitoes could transmit the HIV virus, there would be many more cases among young children, adolescents and other people who would otherwise be at low risk for HIV exposure.

17. If you’re taking medication for HIV, will it prevent the HIV virus from being spead? Even while taking medication, a person with HIV can still infect others if they have unprotected sex, share needles, or expose others to their blood or other bodily fluids.