Frequently Asked Questions about HIV

What is HIV? What is AIDS?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that attacks your body’s immune system, which is crucial to fighting off infections and diseases. Specifically, HIV invades important cells in your body, uses those cells to make more copies of itself, and then destroys them. If left untreated, HIV may progress to AIDS, which is the final stage of an HIV infection. People at this stage of an HIV infection have badly damaged immune systems, which puts them at great risk for more serious medical conditions.

How do people get HIV?

HIV is transmitted from person to person through the following bodily fluids -- blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, vaginal fluid, rectal fluid, and breast milk. Most commonly, HIV is transmitted through condomless anal or vaginal sex or through injection drug use. You cannot get HIV from kissing, hugging or other types of non-sexual physical contact, like being in the same room together.

Who is at risk for HIV?

While risk of infection is more common in some communities than in others, anyone can acquire HIV through risky practices. It’s what you do, not who you are, that puts you at risk for HIV.

What are common symptoms of HIV?

The symptoms of HIV vary, depending on the individual and what stage of the infection you are in. In its beginning stage, HIV does not have unique symptoms and can be indistinguishable from the flu. Because of this, it is important to get tested regularly. Regular testing ensures that you can detect HIV early and begin treatment as soon as possible.

Where can I get tested for HIV?

There are several different ways to test for HIV, from oral swabs to home testing kits. There are also thousands of locations across the country where you can get an HIV test at little or no cost to you. Click here to find a testing site near you.

How often should I get tested?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone get tested at least once per year, and in some cases, every 3-6 months. Additionally, people who are pregnant should be tested in their first trimester.

What steps can I take to reduce my risk of contracting HIV?

There are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of contracting HIV, such as consistently using a condom or dental dam, applying adequate lubrication, and talking with potential sexual partners about your HIV status and theirs. There are also medications you can take before (i.e. PrEP) and after (i.e. PEP) exposure that may substantially reduce your risk of HIV infection.

If engaging in recreational drug use or injecting hormones or steroids, it is critical to ensure that a new needle is used each time and that needles are never shared.

If improperly used, adult sex toys can also transmit HIV, so it is important to clean in-between use and with every new partner.

Is there a cure for HIV?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for HIV. But with proper treatment, you can lead a long, healthy life. People living with HIV who regularly take their medication can significantly reduce the risk of passing the virus to others by as much as much 96 percent.

How does HIV impact the LGBT community?

Click here to read our issue brief about how HIV impacts the LGBT community.


This article addresses HIV in the context of the United States. In countries where health infrastructure is limited, the reality for individuals living with HIV/AIDS can be very different. To find out more about HIV-related care outside the United States, visit

For more HRC resources on HIV prevention, treatment and care -- including our resource Debunking Common Myths about HIV -- click here.