AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is thought to be caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This virus destroys the body’s immune system, leaving the person unable to fight certain types of infection or cancer. The AIDS virus also attacks the central nervous system, causing mental and neurological problems.

The virus is carried in body fluids such as semen, vaginal secretions, breast milk and blood (including menstrual blood). More than half of the women in the U.S. who get AIDS do so through heterosexual sex. In fact, women in the U.S. are 10 times more likely to get AIDS from men than vice versa. This may be because semen contains more of the virus than does vaginal fluid. Semen can also remain in the vagina for days which raises the risk for contracting the virus. Certain activities are likely to promote contracting the AIDS virus.
High-risk activities include:

  • Unprotected* anal, oral and/or vaginal sex except in a monogamous relationship in which neither partner is infected with HIV. Particularly high risk situations are having sex:

    • When drunk or high.
    • With multiple or casual sex partners.
    • With a partner who has had multiple or casual sex partners.
    • With a partner who has used drugs by injection or is bisexual.
    • When you or your partner has signs and symptoms of a genital tract infection.
    • Sharing needles and/or “the works” when injecting any kind of drugs.
    • Pregnancy and delivery if the mother is infected with HIV. This can put the child at risk.
    • Having had blood transfusions, especially before 1985, unless tested negative for HIV.

* Unprotected means without using latex condoms alone or with other latex or polyurethane barriers. When used correctly, every time and for every sex act these provide protection from HIV. Though not 100% effective, they will reduce the risk. Male condoms with a spermicidal gel is preferred. The Reality female condom also offers protection, especially when used with a male condom.

There is some concern about the risk of getting AIDS from an infected doctor, dentist or patient. There are almost no cases of health professionals passing HIV to a patient. Patient to health professional transmission has been more noted. Measures are being proposed and required by medical and dental associations to decrease these possible risks, even though they are extremely low.

Blood screening tests are also done on donated blood which makes it highly unlikely that you’d get AIDS from current blood transfusions. You cannot get AIDS from:

  • Donating blood.
  • Casual contact such as touching, holding hands or hugging.
  • A cough, sneeze, tears or sweat.
  • An animal or insect bite.
  • A toilet seat.
  • Using a hot tub or swimming.

Screening tests for AIDS are available through doctors’ offices, clinics and health departments. A small sample of your blood is tested for antibodies to the HIV virus. If these antibodies are present, you test positive for and are considered infected with HIV. It could take as long as six months from exposure to the virus for these antibodies to show up. The most common reason for a false negative test is when a person gets tested before HIV antibodies have formed. If you test positive for HIV, a second type of blood test is done to confirm it. HIV/AIDS symptoms may not show up for as long as eight to eleven years after a person is infected with the virus.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of HIV/AIDS in women can differ from those in men. These may include:

  • Chronic vaginal yeast infections. (See page 66).
  • Abnormal pap smear.
  • Cervical cancer. (See page 13).
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). (See page 50).

Some sexually transmitted diseases such as the human papilloma virus (HPV) and certain genital warts. [Note: The above conditions can be present without HIV. The only way to confirm the presence of HIV is to be tested.]

Symptoms that may come before full-blown AIDS:

  • Fatigue.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Chronic diarrhea.
  • Weight loss.
  • Persistent dry cough.
  • Fever.
  • Night sweats.
  • Swollen lymph nodes.

Persons with full blown AIDS fall prey to many diseases such as skin infections, fungal infections, tuberculosis, pneumonia and cancer. These “opportunistic” infections are what lead to death in an AIDS victim, not the AIDS virus itself. When the virus invades the brain cells, it leads to forgetfulness, impaired speech, trembling and seizures.


At present, there is no cure for AIDS. A person infected with AIDS has it for life.
Current treatment for AIDS include:

  • The drugs AZT, DDI and DDC. These are approved for use in the United States to treat AIDS. They slow the virus, but do not destroy it. They may delay the onset and slow the progress of AIDS, but may have only short term effects.
  • Taking measures to reduce the risk of getting infections and diseases. Get adequate rest, proper nutrition and take vitamin supplements as suggested by your doctor.
  • Emotional Support.
  • Treating the “opportunistic” infections that occur, for example:
  • Antibiotics such as Bactrim or Septra for pneumonia.
  • Chemotherapy drugs for cancer, such as lymphoma or Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a rare form of skin cancer which is identified by purplish sores on the skin.
  • Radiation therapy and surgery have been used in the treatment of some patients.

AIDS is under intensive study and research. Better forms of treatment and a vaccine are being researched worldwide. A single vaccine to protect against AIDS is not very likely, though, because the HIV virus quickly creates new strains of the virus.

Questions to Ask

Have you tested positive for HIV? Yes: See Doctor

Do you have:

  • A sexually transmitted disease (STD)?
  • A persistent yeast infections in the mouth (thrush) or vagina?
Yes: See Doctor
Have you been told that a present or past sexual partner with whom you have had sexual relations without using condoms has AIDS or the AIDS virus? Yes: See Doctor

Do you engage in high risk activities for getting infected with HIV?

  • either; Sex without latex condoms or with multiple partners or with a partner who is a drug user and/or has had multiple partners, and/or when drinking alcohol except in a monogamous relationship in which neither you or your sex partner are HIV positive?
  • or; Sharing needles and/or “the works” when injecting any kind of drug?
Yes: See Doctor
Self Care

Prevention/Self-Care Procedures

Someday, a cure for AIDS may exist. For now, prevention is the only protection. Take these steps to avoid contracting the AIDS virus:

  • Unless you are in a monogamous relationship in which you and your partner are HIV free, use latex condoms and/or Reality female condoms during sexual intercourse, treated with or along with a spermicide containing Nonoxynol-9. Studies suggest this spermicide may inactivate the AIDS virus. (You may need to avoid spermicide if it causes irritation).
  • Don’t have sex with people who are at high risk for contracting AIDS. These have been noted to be:

    • Homosexual or bisexual men especially with multiple sex partners.
    • Persons who use illegal intravenous drugs.
    • Heterosexual partners of persons infected or exposed to HIV.
    • Persons who have had multiple blood transfusions, especially before 1985, unless tested negative for HIV.
    • Persons who have sex with more than one partner.

  • Ask specific questions about your partner’s sexual past, i.e., have they had many partners or unprotected (no condom) sex? Do not be afraid to ask if they have been tested for HIV and if the results were positive or negative. Be aware, though, that the response may not be an honest one. You need to protect yourself! Take charge. Get tested for HIV. Ask your partner to get tested, too. Use prevention measures or avoid sex until you get tested for HIV if you have been exposed to it.
  • Don’t have sex with anyone who you know or suspect has had multiple partners. If you’ve had sex with someone you suspect is HIV positive, see your doctor.
  • Don’t share needles and/or “the works” with anyone. This includes not only illegal drugs such as heroin, but steroids, insulin, etc.
  • Don’t share personal items that have blood on them such as razors.
  • Plan ahead for safe sex.
  • Decide what you’ll say and be willing to do ahead of time with a potential sex partner.
  • Keep a supply of condoms handy, i.e., in your purse, by the bed, in your pocket, etc. Know the correct way to use them.
  • Putting the condom on your partner can be a part of foreplay.
  • Don’t have sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Avoid sex if either partner has signs and symptoms of a genital tract infection.

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Written by American Institute for Preventive Medicine

Explore Wellness in 2021