What It's Like to Live With HIV/AIDS: Myths and Facts

Having HIV Means You Have AIDS
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Myth. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that destroys the body's CD4 immune cells, which help fight disease. With the right medications, you can have HIV for years or decades without HIV progressing to AIDS. AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is diagnosed when you have HIV as well as certain opportunistic infections or your CD4 cell count drops below 200.

It's Difficult to Get HIV From Casual Contact
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Fact. You can't catch or spread HIV from hugging someone, using the same towel, or sharing the same glass. It's very rare to get HIV from a blood transfusion -- the U.S. blood supply is carefully tested. However, you can spread the disease from having unprotected sex, sharing needles, or getting a tattoo from unsterilized equipment.

You Have Just a Few Years to Live
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Myth. Everyone with HIV experiences it differently. Some people may develop AIDS within a few months as the virus quickly weakens their immune system. Many others can live for decades with HIV and have a normal life expectancy. You can help prevent HIV from progressing to AIDS by seeing your doctor regularly and following your doctor's recommendations.

You'll Know You Have HIV Because of Your Symptoms
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Myth. Some people don't show any signs of HIV for years after being infected. Many can have some symptoms within 10 days to a few weeks after infection. These first symptoms are similar to the flu or mononucleosis and may include fever, fatigue, rash, and sore throat. They usually disappear after a few weeks and you may not have symptoms again for several years. The only way to tell you have HIV is to get tested.

HIV Can Be Cured
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Myth. There is no cure for HIV, but treatment can keep virus levels low and help maintain your immune system. Some drugs interfere with proteins HIV needs to copy itself; others block the virus from entering or inserting its genetic material into your immune cells. Your doctor will consider your general health, the health of your immune system, and the amount of virus in your body to decide when to start treatment.

Anyone Can Get HIV
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Fact. About 56,000 people in the U.S. get HIV each year, and 18,000 people with AIDS die each year. Anyone can get HIV -- men, women, and children, people who are gay or straight. Men who have sex with men make up more than half (53%) of new HIV infections each year. Women account for 27% of new infections, and children 13%. African-Americans make up almost half of all new HIV infections each year.

Sex Is Safe When Both Partners Have HIV

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Myth. Just because you and your partner both have HIV, doesn't mean you should forget about protection when you have sex. Using a condom or other latex barrier can help protect you from other sexually transmitted diseases as well as other strains of HIV, which may be resistant to anti-HIV medication. Even if you are being treated and feel well you can still infect others.

You Can Have a Baby if You Are HIV-Positive

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Fact. Infected mothers can indeed pass HIV to their babies during pregnancy or delivery. However, you can lower the risk by working with your doctor and getting the appropriate care and medication. Pregnant women with HIV can take medications to treat their infection and to protect their babies against the virus.

You Can’t Avoid Other HIV-Related Infections

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Myth. Due to weakened immune systems, people with HIV can be vulnerable to infections like pneumocystis pneumonia, tuberculosis, candidiasis, cytomegalovirus, and toxoplasmosis. The best way to reduce your risk is to take your HIV medications. Some infections can be prevented with drugs. You can lessen your exposure to some germs by avoiding undercooked meat, litter boxes, and water that may be contaminated.

Without Insurance You Can't Get Lifesaving Drugs
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Myth. There are government programs, nonprofit groups, and some pharmaceutical companies that may help cover of the cost of HIV/AIDS drugs. But be aware: These drug "cocktails" can cost $15,000 a year. Talk to your local HIV/AIDS service organization to learn about financial help.