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What is HIV? What is AIDS?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus. You may hear that someone is HIV infected, has HIV infection, or has HIV disease. These are all terms that mean the person has HIV in his or her body and can pass the virus to other people.

HIV attacks the body's immune system. The immune system protect the body from infections and disease, but has no clear way to protect it from HIV. Without treatment, most people infected with HIV become less able to fight off the germs that we are exposed to every day. Many of these germs do not usually make a healthy person sick, but they can cause life-threatening infections and cancers in a person whose immune systems has been weakened by HIV. HIV treatments can slow this process and allow people with HIV to live longer, healthier lives.

People infected with HIV may have no symptoms for ten or more years. They may not know they are infected. An HIV test is the only way to find out if you have HIV.

AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a late stage of HIV disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person with HIV infection has AIDS when he or she:

  • has a CD4 cell count (a way to measure the strength of the immune system) that falls below 200. A normal CD4 cell count is 500 or higher. OR
  • develops any of the specific, serious conditions - also called AIDS-defining illnesses - that are linked with HIV infection (see Appendix for a list of these conditions).

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How long can people live with HIV or AIDS?

Medicines that fight HIV have helped many people with HIV and AIDS live years and even decades longer than was possible in the past, before effective treatment was available. HIV treatments are not a cure, and they do not work equally well for everyone, but they have extended the lives of many people with HIV and AIDS.

Without treatment, some people live for just a few years after getting HIV. Others live much longer. Researchers are studying a small number of people with HIV who have not become ill for more than ten years, even without any HIV treatment. However, these people are still infected with HIV and can pass the virus to others.

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Can I get a vaccine to prevent HIV infection or AIDS?

No. There is no vaccine to prevent HIV infection. Researchers are working to develop a vaccine. Vaccines in development are being tested to find out if they work.

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Is there a cure for HIV or AIDS?

No. There is no cure for HIV or AIDS. However, there are medicines that fight HIV and help people with HIV and AIDS live longer, healthier lives.

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How is HIV spread from one person to another?

HIV is spread when infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids, or breast milk gets into the bloodstream of another person through:

  • direct entry into a blood vessel;
  • mucous linings, such as the vagina, rectum, penis, mouth, eyes, or nose; or
  • a break in the skin.

HIV is not spread through saliva (spit).

HIV is spread in the following ways:

  • Having vaginal, anal, or oral sex without using a condom.
  • Sharing needles, syringes, or works to inject drugs, vitamins, hormones, steroids, or medicines.
  • Women with HIV infection can pass HIV to their babies during pregnancy, delivery, and breastfeeding.
  • People who are exposed to blood and/or body fluids at work, like health care workers, may be exposed to HIV through needle-sticks or other on-the-job exposures.

It is also possible to pass HIV through sharing needles for piercing or tattooing.

A person infected with HIV can pass the virus to others during these activities. This is true even if the person:

  • has no symptoms of HIV;
  • has not been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS;
  • is taking HIV medicine; or
  • has an undetectable viral load

HIV is not spread by casual contact like sneezing, coughing, eating or drinking from common utensils, shaking hands, hugging, or using restrooms, drinking fountains, swimming pools, or hot tubs.

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Is there a test for HIV infection?

Yes. There are a number of tests that detect either antibodies to HIV or HIV itself.

Your body produces antibodies to fight germs. People who are infected with HIV have HIV antibodies in their body fluids. There are two kinds of HIV antibody tests available in New York State: a blood test and an oral test.

For adults and children age 18 months or older, both types of HIV antibody test are more than 99% accurate in determining whether a person is infected.

HIV antibody tests do not measure the amount of virus in the bloodstream. The tests also cannot tell if a person has AIDS, which is a late stage of HIV disease.

Other tests measure HIV directly rather than measuring antibodies to the virus. These tests are usually used to measure the amount of HIV in the bloodstream of someone who has already had a positive HIV antibody test. In some special situations (for example, to test newborn babies of HIV-infected women), tests that measure HIV directly are used to detect HIV infection. However, the HIV antibody test is by far the most common test for HIV infection.

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What is the difference between anonymous and confidential testing?

If you have a confidential HIV test, you will give your name and other identifying information (age, gender) to the test counselor, doctor, or other health care provider, and the test result will be put in your medical record. The names of people who test positive for HIV are given to the New York State Department of Health to help the department better respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York State. Information about your HIV status is given only to the New York State Department of Health and is kept confidential. The confidentiality of all HIV-related information is protected by New York State Public Health Law.

If you have an anonymous HIV test, you do not have to give your name or any other identifying information. Instead, you are given a code number, which you use to get your test results when you return to the testing site. An anonymous test result is not recorded in your medical record and is not sent to your doctor or to other health care providers. If you test positive for HIV at a site that provides anonymous testing, you can choose to give your name and change the test result to confidential - which allows you to get HIV-related medical care and support services (like housing assistance) without waiting for a second HIV test to confirm the result.

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Is there a 100% effective way to prevent sexual transmission of HIV?

The only 100% effective way to prevent sexual transmission of HIV is through abstinence - avoiding all vaginal, anal and oral sex. Using a latex male condom or a female condom can greatly reduce, but not entirely eliminate, the risk of HIV transmission. However, abstinence is the only method to completely eliminate the possibility of sexual transmission of HIV.

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How can people who inject drugs reduce their risk of HIV infection?

Stop using drugs. The risk of becoming infected with HIV from needles and syringes can be completely eliminated by not injecting drugs. Methadone maintenance is the most effective treatment program for heroin users. Studies have shown that heroin users who are in a methadone maintenance program are up to six times less likely to get HIV than users who are not in a program. Drug treatment programs are available throughout New York State. Check the Resources section for phone numbers to locate drug treatment programs.

Reduce injection drug use. If it is not possible to stop using drugs, reducing the frequency of injection can reduce the number of potential exposures to HIV. A methadone maintenance program can help heroin users stop or reduce their drug use.

Always use new needles, syringes, and works. Don't share. HIV can be passed through infected blood in shared needles, syringes, spoons, bottle caps, cotton, and any other equipment used to inject. Using new needles and syringes to inject drugs can reduce the risk of transmitting HIV. However, syringes, needles, and works sold on the street as "new" may actually be used. They can transmit HIV if someone with HIV previously used them.

Clean needles and works with bleach. If you cannot get new, sterile syringes, you can reduce the risk of infection by always cleaning injection equipment (needles and works) immediately after use and just before reuse. This does not entirely eliminate HIV transmission risk, but it does reduce it.

Three ways to get new, clean needles and syringes in New York State are:

  1. At a drug store: In New York State, the Expanded Syringe Access Demonstration Program (ESAP) allows registered drugstores to sell up to ten syringes at a time, without a prescription, to adults 18 years or older. To find ESAP pharmacies, and for answers to questions about HIV/AIDS and safe syringe and needles disposal, call the New York State HIV/AIDS Hotline (see the Resources section).
  2. At a needle exchange program, also called Syringe Exchange Programs (SEPs): At SEPs, located in some areas of New York State, drug injectors can exchange used syringes for new, clean syringes. To find SEPs, call the New York State HIV/AIDS Hotline (see the Resources section).
  3. From your doctor: Under ESAP, health care facilities as well as doctors and other health care providers who can prescribe syringes may also provide syringes without a prescription. Talk to your doctor about ways you can get access to clean needles and syringes.

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Where can I find more information on HIV/AIDS?

For more information on HIV/AIDS, please refer to the links below:


NYS Department of Health: HIV/AIDS

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Source: New York State Department of Health