BronxCare Health System

Basic Facts About HIV/AIDS

What is HIV?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks cells that help the body fight infection. According to the CDC, about 1.5 million adults and teens are living with HIV infection in the U.S.

How is HIV spread?

HIV is spread from person to person through blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, vaginal fluid, rectal fluid, and breast milk. HIV is most commonly 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, or through a person’s urine, sweat, tears, saliva, or vomit (unless there is blood in it).

What are some risk factors for HIV?

Anyone of any age, race, sex, or sexual orientation can be infected with HIV/AIDS. However, you are at greater risk of HIV if you: 

Have unprotected sex. Anal sex is riskier than vaginal sex. According to the CDC, men who have sex with men are at the greatest risk of contracting HIV; in the U.S., their estimated lifetime risk for HIV infection is one in six, compared with heterosexual men at one in 524 and heterosexual women at one in 253.

However, in the Bronx, heterosexual sex is the most common risk factor for HIV transmission, and women make up a disproportionate share of new HIV diagnoses.

Have multiple partners. Your risk of HIV increases if you have multiple sexual partners or if you have sex with someone who has multiple partners.

Have other STDs. Having an STD changes the cells that line the vagina, penis, rectum, or mouth, and this can make it easier for HIV to enter the body.

Use drugs. People who inject illicit drugs often share needles and syringes, exposing them to other people’s blood. In addition, alcohol and other drugs can contribute to the spread of HIV by impairing judgment and leading to unsafe sexual behaviors.

Live in an area where HIV infection is common. Among New York City boroughs, the Bronx had the highest prevalence of HIV among its residents. In 2020, there were 32,230 people living with HIV in the Bronx borough; 307 were newly diagnosed with HIV. The borough’s death rate from HIV-related causes for persons diagnosed with HIV was higher than all other boroughs and nearly twice as high as Manhattan’s. (Source: NYC HIV Surveillance Annual Report, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene)

How do you know if you have HIV?

You cannot tell a person has HIV just by looking at them. People can have HIV for years before any symptoms appear. HIV can only be diagnosed through an HIV test. If a test detects antibodies, the test result is HIV positive.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

Symptoms will vary, but two-thirds of people who contract HIV will have flu-like symptoms within two to four weeks of infection. That being said, you cannot rely on symptoms to determine whether you have HIV. The only way to know for sure is to get tested.

For those diagnosed with HIV, can medicines slow down or stop the virus?

Antiretroviral medicines can lower the amount of HIV in your blood and make it harder for HIV to make copies of itself, or they can stop HIV from getting inside white blood cells. It is important to take the correct dose of HIV medicine on time in order for the medicines to work properly. Most people in the U.S. with HIV do not progress to AIDS.

What Is AIDS?

AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is the late stage of HIV infection that occurs when the body’s immune system is badly damaged by the virus.

Can medicines prevent HIV?

Yes, people at risk for HIV can take Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) medication to prevent contracting HIV from sex or injection drug use. Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) medication can be taken within 72 hours after a possible exposure to prevent the virus from taking hold.