3 Common Myths About HIV, AIDS: Do You Have the Facts?

Virus is often spread through unprotected sex, needle use
3 Common Myths About HIV, AIDS: Do You Have the Facts?

While about 1.1 million people age 13 and older are living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), misconceptions still abound about the virus and disease.

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For starters, many people don’t know the difference between the two terms. HIV is the virus that causes the disease called AIDS.

The virus weakens your ability to fight infections and cancer. People with HIV are said to have AIDS when the virus makes them very sick and they develop certain infections or cancers.

HIV and AIDS cannot be cured. Although people with AIDS will one day die from an AIDS-related illness, there are ways to help people stay healthy longer.

We talked to Kristen Englund, MD, to learn about common myths surrounding HIV and AIDS. Here is what she had to say:

Myth: I can get HIV simply by being around people who are HIV-positive

Fact:  You can only get HIV when an infected man or woman’s body fluids – meaning blood, semen, fluids from the vagina, or breast milk – enters your bloodstream. The virus enters your bloodstream through broken skin or the linings of the mouth, anus, or sex organs (the penis and vagina).

A person with HIV can feel okay and still spread the virus to others. Pregnant women with HIV can pass on the virus to their fetus.

The most common ways people get HIV is by sharing a needle to take drugs or having unprotected sex – meaning without a condom – with an infected person.

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You cannot get HIV from:

  • Touching, hugging or breathing the same air as someone who has HIV/AIDS
  • Public bathrooms, swimming pools or water fountains
  • Sharing cups, utensils, or telephones with someone who has HIV/AIDS
  • Bug bites
  • Touching a doorknob handle after an HIV-positive person
  • Using exercise equipment at a gym

“Scientific research shows that HIV is not spread through touch, tears, sweat, or saliva,” Dr. Englund says. “However, you have a higher risk of getting HIV if you have unprotected sex with many partners – either men or women – or have unprotected sex for drugs or money.”

Myth: If I’m diagnosed with HIV, my life is over

Fact: Having HIV does not automatically mean you have AIDS. Many years may pass before people with the virus feel ill or develop the disease.

Many people now live long and active lives with HIV because of medical advancements. Treatments for HIV called Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) can improve and extend the lives of many people who are HIV-positive.

HAART can reduce the amount of virus in your blood to a level so low that it doesn’t show up in blood tests. HAART can keep you healthy for many years, and greatly reduce your chance of transmitting HIV if taken consistently and correctly.

“Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy can considerably prolong lives and preserve the quality of life for many people living with HIV,” Dr. Englund says.

Myth: I can figure out on my own whether I or my partner has HIV

Fact: The only way for you to know if you’re HIV-positive is to get tested. You can be HIV-positive and not have any symptoms for years.

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Multiple national guidelines recommend routine voluntary HIV screening of all patients ages 18 to 75  as a usual part of medical care. The reason for these recommendations is that nearly one out of five people infected with HIV are unaware that they have the infection.

HIV testing is easy, Dr. Englund says. Many testing sites offer rapid testing that uses a few drops of blood from your finger and can provide you with results in 15 minutes to 20 minutes. Your doctor also can order a blood test to be drawn at the lab, and this can take a day or two for the results, she says.

If test results are positive, more testing needs to be done to confirm the result and see where you are in the disease process, Dr. Englund says. Most testing sites have connections to HIV specialists  in the area and can make an appointment  for you to quickly get into good medical care, she says.

Some people get flu-like symptoms a month or two after they have been infected with the virus. These symptoms often go away within a week to a month.

Some signs that HIV is turning into AIDS include:

  • A fever that won’t go away.
  • Sweating while you sleep.
  • Feeling tired all the time, but not from stress or lack of sleep.
  • Pneumonia.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Swollen glands in the neck, groin, or underarms.
  • White patches in the mouth from an infection called oral thrush.

“It is extremely important that people get tested for HIV and know that they are infected early,” Dr. Englund says. “By acting on this knowledge, they have the best chance of effective  medical care and treatment.”

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