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There can be a lot of misinformation and misconceptions surrounding the human immunodeficiency virus, otherwise known as HIV.

Below, we answer some of the most frequently asked questions to help you understand more about the virus, including how it’s transmitted, who may be at risk, and options for treatment.

HIV is a virus that attacks and weakens the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight illnesses. It’s transmitted via bodily fluids like semen and blood.

HIV is currently incurable. But treatment does exist to help people with HIV live healthy lives.

How is HIV different from AIDS?

HIV can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) if left untreated. This progression can take between 5 and 10 years on average.

AIDS is the final and most severe stage of an HIV infection, with the body struggling to combat infections and diseases as the virus has destroyed too many white blood cells. White blood cells play a crucial role in your immune system and help fight infection.

Symptoms can include:

  • persistent fevers, diarrhea, and headaches
  • severe fatigue
  • significant weight loss
  • opportunistic infections like pneumonia and tuberculosis

AIDS is eventually fatal.

Some people are more at risk of contracting HIV than others. They include:

  • people who have a penis who have condomless sex with other people who have a penis
  • people who have had condomless penetrative vaginal or anal sex with someone who is HIV-positive
  • people who share syringes or needles or come into contact with infected blood in other ways
  • babies whose birthing parent is HIV-positive

HIV can be transmitted through a variety of bodily fluids, including:

  • pre-ejaculate
  • semen
  • blood
  • vaginal secretions
  • rectal secretions
  • breast milk

The fluid needs to come into contact with another person’s bloodstream via cuts, sores, or mucous membranes in order to transmit the virus.

Many transmission cases involve penetrative vaginal or anal sex without a condom or other barrier method. It’s possible to transmit HIV through oral sex, but the risk is thought to be much lower.

Sexual transmission is only possible if a person who is HIV-positive has a detectable viral load. Effective treatment can make the viral load undetectable.

Sharing needles and syringes while injecting drugs is another higher-risk activity if one person is HIV-positive.

It’s also possible for a pregnant person with HIV to transmit the virus to the baby either before, during, or after birth (after birth, the virus can be passed via breast milk).

According to the Office on Women’s Health, the risk of transmitting HIV to a baby is less than one percent if the pregnant person receives treatment and has an undetectable viral load.

How isn’t HIV transmitted?

It’s impossible to get HIV from close, non-sexual contact with others.

That means there’s no need to worry if someone coughs or sneezes near you, if you shake or hold someone’s hand, or if you visit public places like restrooms or swimming pools.

HIV also can’t be transmitted through saliva, so you can safely kiss and share food, drink, or cutlery with others.

U=U is an abbreviation from an informational campaign. It means undetectable = untransmittable.

It explains why regular and effective treatment is so important.

If a person with HIV is receiving treatment and consistently maintains an undetectable viral load, there’s essentially no risk of them transmitting the virus to a sexual partner.

The best way to prevent HIV transmission is to abstain from in-person partnered sexual activity and to never share syringes and needles with others. It’s the only method that’s 100% effective.

But you don’t have to go to extremes when it comes to your sex life (unless you want to). You can reduce your overall risk by:

What is preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP)?

PrEP is a medication you can regularly take to further reduce your risk of contracting HIV. It’s available in pill or shot form and stops the virus from multiplying inside your body.

If taken correctly, PrEP can lower the chance of sexually transmitted HIV by around 99%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

For injection drug users, PrEP pills can reduce the risk of contracting HIV by at least 74%. The PrEP shot isn’t recommended for people who use injection drugs.

Although people who have a higher risk of HIV are more likely to use PrEP, anyone who’s sexually active can use it.

It may be suitable for you if:

  • you have a sexual partner with HIV who has an unknown or detectable viral load
  • you have multiple sexual partners
  • you inject drugs and share equipment with others
  • you have been prescribed postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) on multiple occasions

Speak with a doctor or other healthcare professional if PrEP is something you’d like to explore.

What is postexposure prophylaxis (PEP)?

Unlike PrEP which acts as a preventive, PEP is taken after potential exposure to HIV to help stop the virus from replicating.

You might take PEP if you’ve had condomless sex with someone who has or may have HIV, if you’ve shared injection drug equipment with others who could have the virus, or if you’ve been sexually assaulted.

Think of PEP as an emergency treatment. PEP pills are taken for 28 days, but the medication needs to be started within 72 hours of possible HIV exposure. The sooner you get started, the more effective PEP is.

According to the CDC, everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 should get tested at least once for HIV.

Some people may need to get tested more frequently. If you have a higher risk of contracting HIV, the CDC recommends getting tested at least once a year.

People who have a penis and have sex with other people who have a penis may want to get tested every 3 to 6 months.

People who are pregnant should also get tested in the early stages of pregnancy.

How is HIV diagnosed?

There’s not just one test that can diagnose HIV — a few exist.

But each has a different window for when it can accurately detect the virus after potential exposure.

Nucleic acid tests, which detect the virus in the blood, are often effective the soonest after exposure — between 10 and 33 days. Antibody tests are typically used 23 to 90 days after exposure.

Rapid antigen/antibody tests using blood from a fingerprick can be used 18 to 90 days after exposure. Rapid antigen/antibody tests that use blood from a vein are designed for use 18 to 45 days after potential exposure.

If you receive a negative result, you should take a second test after the window to ensure you don’t have HIV.

Positive results are also checked with a second test before a diagnosis is made.

HIV symptoms come in three stages.

The first stage often results in flu-like symptoms, including:

  • fever
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • muscle and joint pain

People may also notice swollen lymph nodes, mouth ulcers, or an itchy, bumpy rash. However, some early symptoms are so mild that they’re almost unnoticeable.

Does your sex assigned at birth affect how symptoms appear?

HIV symptoms are similar in everyone. But there can be some differences.

For example, people assigned male at birth may be more likely to experience spots, sores, or other visible changes to their genitals.

People assigned female at birth have a higher risk of vaginal infections and pelvic inflammatory disease as well as changes to their menstrual cycle.

How long does it take for symptoms to appear?

The flu-like symptoms of HIV mentioned above can start to appear around 2 to 4 weeks after exposure and may last for days or weeks.

In cases where only mild symptoms occur, it can take a decade or longer for people to experience noticeable symptoms.

Antiretroviral therapy (ART) can treat HIV to the point where it’s no longer detectable in the blood. That means the virus won’t progress to later stages, such as AIDS, and is unlikely to be transmitted to others via sexual activity.

But it’s important to remember that there’s currently no cure for HIV, so lifelong treatment is needed.

Antiretroviral drugs work by stopping the replication of the virus inside the body and preventing further immune system damage. A combination of medications is sometimes needed, but these may be combined into one daily pill.

Most people who take antiretroviral medication for HIV have an undetectable viral load within 6 months.

To find out more about HIV, including where to get tested, treated, and find support, visit these sites:

Getting tested regularly for STIs and practicing safer sex and drug use are the best ways to prevent HIV.

The virus is incurable. But if you do test positive, treatment can help you live a healthy life, manage any symptoms, and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others.

Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.