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HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). It is preventable and treatable, but incurable. People can become infected with HIV through (1) unprotected sexual contact with an HIV-infected person (sex without the use of a male or female condom); (2) transmission from an HIV-infected mother to her child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding; and (3) blood from HIV-contaminated syringes, needles or other sharp instruments and transfusion with HIV-contaminated blood. It is not transmitted by casual contact or other means.
People infected with HIV usually live for years without any signs of the disease. They may look and feel healthy, but they can still pass on the virus to others. Timely initiation of antiretroviral therapy (ART), a group of medicines used to treat HIV, allows a person to handle HIV as a chronic disease and lead a relatively healthy life.
AIDS is the late stage of HIV infection. People who have AIDS grow weaker because their bodies lose the ability to fight off illnesses. In adults not receiving antiretroviral treatment, AIDS develops 7–10 years after HIV infection, on average. In young children it usually develops much faster. There is no cure for AIDS, but new medicines can help people with AIDS live longer.
In most cases, HIV is passed from one person to another through unprotected sexual intercourse, during which the semen, vaginal fluid or blood of an infected person passes into the body of another person.
HIV can also pass from one person to another through the use of non-sterile, HIV-contaminated needles and syringes (most often among drug users sharing needles and syringes), razor blades, knives or other instruments for injecting, cutting or piercing the body.
People may also become infected by HIV through transfusions of infected blood. All blood for transfusions should be screened for HIV.
HIV is passed to infants and young children primarily from the mother during pregnancy or childbirth or through breastfeeding.
It is not possible to get HIV from working, socializing or living side by side with HIV-positive people. Touching those who are infected with HIV, hugging, shaking hands, coughing and sneezing will not spread the disease. HIV cannot be transmitted through toilet seats, telephones, plates, cups, eating utensils, towels, bed linen, swimming pools or public baths. HIV is not spread by mosquitoes or other insects.