What the heck is it anyway?

In a nutshell, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that interferes with the body’s ability to fight infections. HIV and AIDS are often lumped together, but they’re not quite the same disease. HIV attacks and destroys the body’s immune system and makes it easier for you to get sick, because your immune system is too weak to stand up for itself. Left untreated, HIV can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), the more advanced stage of the HIV infection.

More than 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV, and at least 1 in 5 new HIV diagnoses occur in people who are 13-24 years old.

Almost half of young people with HIV don’t know they have it, which means they can pass it on to their partner and have no idea. While everybody is at risk, young women, people of color, and men who have sex with men are especially at risk.

You can’t rely on symptoms to tell whether you have HIV because symptoms are very different from person to person; most people don’t notice any symptoms at all. Some people experience flu-like sickness a few weeks after infection. The only real way to know for sure if you have HIV is a test from your doctor.

Using condoms correctly every time you have sex can really decrease your risk of getting HIV. Condoms can reduce your risk by more than 98%. Internal condoms can also help protect you. If you or your partner is HIV positive or at high-risk, you can talk to your doctor about PrEP – a medication you take to reduce your risk of getting HIV by up to 99%.

HIV is most commonly spread by having anal or vaginal sex with someone who has HIV without using a condom. Unprotected anal sex carries the biggest HIV risk, followed by unprotected vaginal sex. Other less common ways of spreading HIV include sharing needles during drug use or from mother to child during birth or breastfeeding. HIV is NOT spread by kissing, sharing drinking glasses, air, mosquitos, sweat or drinking fountains, because the virus can’t survive outside of the human body for very long. So no, that sketchy toilet seat can’t give you HIV.

If you’re sexually active, you should get tested for HIV and other STIs. It’s the only way to know for sure if you have HIV. Doctors recommend you get these tests at least once a year. Tests are available from health clinics (like Planned Parenthood or the Health Department), physicians and hospitals. HIV can’t be cured completely, but it can be controlled with proper medical care. Getting tested regularly is super important if you’re under age 25, which is when a huge number of sexually active people get infected.


In North Carolina, you have the right to get confidential HIV and STI tests and treatment without a parent’s permission. Want to get tested, but not sure where to start? Use this nifty search tool to find a testing site near you.