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HIV stands for "human immunodeficiency virus." This virus can lead to "acquired immunodeficiency syndrome" or AIDS.
The human body cannot get rid of HIV like it does other viruses like the common cold. Because of this, someone who is infected with HIV is infected for life. There is no known cure for either HIV or AIDS, but there are a few effective treatments that can keep symptoms at bay and extend the life of those suffering from the disease.
HIV is transmitted through fluid contact. This includes, but is not limited to, sharing needles used for drug injections and sexual activity without protection. Unprotected anal sex is the activity with the highest risk of transmission, followed by vaginal sex. Multiple partners or having other STIs also increase the risk of transmission.
Once HIV enters the human body, it begins reproducing itself using the body's CD4 cells, which are important cells for protecting the body against disease. HIV destroys the CD4 cells during the reproduction process. This is called the "acute infection" phase. At the end of this phase, the body's immune system responds to the HIV attack, but the body's ability to produce CD4 cells is seriously compromised. During this period, an infected person may present with flu-like symptoms.
The following phase is called "clinical latency." The CD4 cell count is stabilized, and while HIV is still active, it reproduces at very low levels. Without ART (antiretroviral therapy), this period can last up to a decade until it becomes AIDS. With ART, a person infected with HIV can stay in the latency phase for several decades, and has a lower risk of transmitting the disease. Towards the end of this phase, the viral load (amount of HIV in the body) increases, and your body's immune system begins to shut down.
The last phase of the disease is AIDS. This is when your immune system is so compromised that you cannot fight off even small infections. Typically, it is not AIDS that kills, but rather common infections like the flu or cancers that develop from infections. Without treatment, the life expectancy of someone with AIDS is about three years.