Eight Things Everyone Needs To Know About HIV/AIDS

In honor of World AIDS Day, which falls on December 1st every year, we wanted to take time out on the blog this week to talk about the signs and symptoms of HIV/AIDS, and let patients know what can be done to prevent, detect and treat HIV, which is by far the deadliest sexually-transmitted disease.   Here are eight key things every patient needs to know.

1) What’s the difference between HIV and AIDS?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).  HIV impairs the immune system, making the body susceptible to diseases and infections that people with healthy immune systems don’t typically get.  AIDS-related conditions include infections of the brain, eyes, lungs, intestines, cervix and certain rare cancers, like Kaposi’s Sarcoma.

2) How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is transmitted through contact with the bodily fluids of someone who’s HIV-positive.  This can include contact with seminal fluid, vaginal secretions, blood and breast milk.

3) Who’s at highest risk for contracting HIV?

The activity that’s most likely to expose a person to HIV is receiving unprotected anal intercourse from an infected partner.  (The receptive partner is 13 times more likely to contract HIV than the insertive partner).

Other risk factors include being a gay or bisexual male, injecting IV drugs with used needles and exchanging sex for money.  African-American and Latino patients have higher rates of HIV infection, as do all males between the ages of 25-34.

4)  Is HIV preventable?

In a word, YES! There are several effective ways to prevent HIV infections.

HIV transmission drops dramatically when patients use condoms properly, and when they avoid contact with used hypodermic needles.  In men who have sex with men, taking a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medicine called Truvada once a day is 99% effective in preventing HIV infections.  And in those who have a known exposure to HIV, starting post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) medication within 72 hours of the exposure significantly lowers the risk of HIV infection.

5)  What are the symptoms of HIV?

While it’s important to remember that the only way to know for certain whether or not you’re infected with HIV is to have a blood test done, there are symptoms that the majority of newly-infected HIV patients experience within 2-4 weeks of exposure.  These symptoms include fever, weight loss, night sweats, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, prolonged diarrhea, mouth sores, fatigue and muscle aches.

6) Does it matter when HIV is detected?

When HIV is detected early, patients have significantly lower rates of HIV-related diseases and death.  Also, the earlier patients start on HIV treatment, the lower their risk is of transmitting HIV to others.

7) When should patients be tested for HIV?

Unfortunately, approximately 20% of HIV-infected people in the U.S. don’t know they have it.  It’s crucial that anyone who has symptoms of an HIV infection (see #5 above) undergo HIV testing as soon as possible.  

It’s also recommended that people who engage in high-risk behavior (i.e., using used needles, men having unprotected sex with other men, or anyone having unprotected sex with multiple partners) be tested for HIV every 3-6 months.   In men who have protected sex with other men, HIV testing is recommended at least every 12 months.  All other adults should have HIV testing at least once as part of a routine health check.

8) How effective is HIV treatment?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1980’s, 70 million people around the world have been infected with the virus, and half of those patients have died due to complications of the disease.  

The good news is that there are now multiple medications that are effective in halting the progression of HIV, eliminating complications from the infection, and decreasing the transmission of HIV.  Millions of people who would have otherwise died from complications of HIV and AIDS now often live decades longer due to effective treatment options.

These medications, called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) have been on the market since the late 1990’s, and significant advances continue to be made in the treatment of HIV/AIDS.  


At Golden Gate Urgent Care, we have rapid HIV testing that gives you the result in less than 20 minutes!  Whether you need an STD check or treatment for an illness or injury, make an appointment online or simply walk in to any of our six Bay Area locations to get the care you need.

Sarah Thebarge MMSc, PA-C Sarah Thebarge earned her physician assistant degree at Yale School of Medicine, and then studied journalism at Columbia School of Journalism. She has been a physician assistant and a freelance journalist since 2004. In addition to caring for patients at Golden Gate Urgent Care, Sarah frequently volunteers her medical skills in the developing world. Her writing has appeared in Huffington Post, USA Today and National Geographic, and her blog was featured on MSNBC.com. She is the author of the memoir The Invisible Girls and the upcoming book WELL: Healing our Beautiful, Broken World from a Hospital in West Africa. She currently lives in the Mission District of San Francisco.

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