HIV/AIDS_Basic Info

What causes HIV infection and AIDS?

HIV infection is caused by a virus. AIDS is a disease that can result from HIV infection.

HIV attacks your body’s immune system, making it unable to fight certain illnesses. If you are HIV-positive (infected with HIV):

  • your infection could progress to AIDS if you develop a serious illness, such as pneumonia (a lung infection)
  • you may develop AIDS in 5 to 10 years if you do not get treatment for HIV infection
  • you can live a near-normal lifespan if you start treatment early for HIV infection

How is HIV spread?

HIV is spread by infected body fluids, such as:

  • blood
  • semen
  • fluid from the rectum
  • fluid from the vagina
  • breast milk

HIV can only spread when infected fluid from a person with HIV gets into the bloodstream of another person through:

  • broken skin
  • wet linings of the body, such as the:
    • vagina
    • rectum
    • foreskin
  • the opening of the penis

HIV cannot spread through:

  • healthy, unbroken skin
  • casual contact, such as:
    • hugging
    • kissing
    • shaking hands
  • sharing food
  • mosquito bites
  • toilet seats

If you have HIV, you can pass the virus to your baby during:

  • pregnancy
  • childbirth
  • breastfeeding

You can only spread HIV, not AIDS. That is, whether you have HIV or AIDS, you can only infect others with HIV.

What are the symptoms of being HIV-positive and AIDS?

Although AIDS can develop after you have been infected with HIV, the symptoms are different.


You may develop mild flu-like symptoms 2 to 4 weeks after becoming infected with HIV. Common early symptoms include:

  • fever
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • joint pain
  • swollen glands (lymph nodes)

The symptoms of HIV infection will go away on their own. You may be HIV-positive and not know it because you may not experience any more symptoms for 5 to 10 years.


AIDS will eventually develop if you do not seek treatment for HIV infection. Starting treatment early for HIV can help you live a near-normal lifespan.

Symptoms of AIDS include:

  • pneumonia (a lung infection)
  • cancerous tumours on the skin
  • fungal infections, such as yeast infections
  • viral infections, such as shingles
  • long-term diarrhea
  • unexplained weight loss

What do you do if you become ill?

If you think you may have the symptoms of HIV or AIDS, see a health care provider to get:

  • tested
  • counselled
  • treated

If you have been infected, it is important that others you have had close contact with are notified, such as:

  • your past and current sex partners
  • people you have shared drug paraphernalia with, such as:
    • needles
    • syringes
    • cookers
    • spoons
    • water
    • filters

Telling your sex partner(s)

If you are uncomfortable telling a sex partner that you have HIV, ask your health care provider for help. He or she can:

  • notify your past sex partner(s) without revealing your identity
  • give you support and information on how to tell your past and current sex partner(s)

In Canada, the law may require you to tell your sex partner(s) you have HIV before you have sex.

How is HIV treated?

There is no cure for HIV.

If you have HIV, you can be treated with antiretroviral drugs. These drugs help:

  • lower the level of HIV in your body
  • slow the spread of the virus in your body
  • help your immune system fight off other infections

Treatment can:

  • give you a better chance of living a longer, healthier life
  • decrease your risk of passing the virus on to others

Starting treatment early can increase your chance of living a near-normal lifespan.

Treatment is also available for many of the infections and diseases associated with having AIDS.