Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a type of virus called a retrovirus, which infects the human immune system (the system in the body which is in charge of fighting off illness). HIV may cause AIDS (a collection of diseases and symptoms) by eventually killing the white blood cells, which a healthy body uses to fight off disease.

Human immunodeficiency virus
Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 (in green) budding from cultured lymphocyte. Multiple round bumps on cell surface represent sites of assembly and budding of virions.
Virus classification
Group VI (ssRNA-RT)
  • Human immunodeficiency virus 1
  • Human immunodeficiency virus 2
HIV and AIDS explained in a simple way
Percentage of adults that are infected with HIV per country at the end of 2005      15–50% (15-50 people out of 100)      5–15% (5-15 people out of 100)      1–5% (1-5 people out of 100)      0.5–1.0% (1-2 people out of 200)      0.1–0.5% (1-5 people out of 1000)      <0.1% (less than 1 person out of 1000)      Greenland no data
Diagram of the immature and mature forms of HIV

How people get infected

It is possible that a person can get infected with HIV if any body liquid with the virus gets into their body.

A person cannot get infected with HIV from just touching, like a hug or handshake, or touching someone else's saliva. A person cannot get HIV from an insect bite, a cough, or a sneeze.[1] People also cannot get HIV from touching light switches, using toilets, or drinking from the same glass as a person with HIV.


Drug treatment

HIV causes a person to become more prone to illness, so infected people need treatment options. However, there is no cure for HIV. To help ease negative symptoms, drugs called anti-retroviral therapy (ART) are available. This treatment is also called high active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART). HAART treatment begins with one non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor (NNRTI) and two nucleoside analogue reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs).[2] The NRTI drug could be named zidovudine (AZT), tenofovir (TDF), andlamivudine (3TC), or emtricitabine (FTC).[3]

These drugs slow the progression of the HIV virus in the body.[3] Usually, these treatments consist of a combination of three or more drugs, and each drug performs a different job in fighting the virus. In general, HAART prevents the HIV from multiplying and destroying CD4 cells. CD4 cells are necessary to help protect the body from infections and cancer.[4] Since the HIV virus destroys CD4 cells, it causes people with HIV to be more prone to illness.

It is recommended to start HAART if a person has HIV and has a CD4 cell count of less than or equal to 350 cells/mm3. This number can be determined by a doctor.[3] A person’s age, sex, and other infections determine which treatment he or she should take.[3] These medication regimens can help HIV-infected people live longer, healthier lives, and can also help prevent the HIV from advancing to AIDS.[5]

Symptoms of acute HIV infection

General treatment

There has been controversy surrounding when the correct time to start therapy should be after a person discovers that he or she has HIV. Recently, the answer has been that earlier treatment is recommended.[6] This is because, first, effective therapy can prevent non-AIDS-related deaths. Second, therapy can prevent harm to a person’s immune system. Third, therapy can help prevent transmission of HIV to others, and can therefore reduce HIV prevalence overall.[6] Although there are some negative side effects of antiretroviral medications, the benefits of therapy usually outweigh the negative effects.

Effects of therapy

Patients on HAART have reported significant improvements in physical health, emotional health, mental health, and daily function compared to HIV-positive patients not yet on treatment.[7] Most research has occurred in developing countries, and little research has been done on the impacts of ART on household wellbeing.[7]

Although HAART can be an effective means to treating HIV, there can be many negative side effects. Negative side effects can vary by drug, by ethnicity, and by drug interactions in the body. The following list contains the most common and serious negative side effects associated with HAART medications to treat HIV.[8]

Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NRTIs)

Nonnucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NNRTIs)

Protease Inhibitors (PIs)

Fusion Inhibitors

Chemokine Coreceptor Antagonists

Integrase Inhibitors

  • Nausea, diarrhea, headache, rash

Pharmacokinetic Enhancers

Alternative therapy

Many people living with HIV have tried using alternative treatment methods, known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Some types of CAM include stress management, natural health products, massage/therapeutic touch, acupuncture, and homeopathy.[9] Stress management can increase quality of life for a person with HIV.[9] Even with little evidence of its effectiveness, many people chose to try CAM because of the many negative side effects associated with HAART and the few negative side effects associated with CAM. Some HIV-infected people also try herbal medicines to treat HIV, but there has been no evidence showing any positive outcomes with the use of herbal remedies.[10]

Another type of alternative therapy for treating HIV is micronutrient supplementation. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals, so these supplements would be in the form of a general daily multivitamin. These supplements have been proven to help treat HIV because HIV can cause micronutrient deficiencies, so the supplements can help replenish these needed vitamins and minerals. Although the supplements may not help ease all negative symptoms, they offer some benefits and are safe for HIV-infected patients.[10] Supplements are also safe for HIV-infected pregnant women and their children. Specifically, vitamin A and zinc have shown positive health effects.[10] There are no major negative side effects of vitamin and mineral supplements.[11]

Alternative therapies can help to reduce symptoms of diseases like HIV, but do not cure the disease, or stop the disease from spreading to other people.


"PREP" or "PrEP" is pre-exposure prophylaxis. This means a person takes a drug before having risky sex. The drug 'Truvada' is a combination of two different anti-viral treatments: tenofovir and emtricitabine.[12] Truvada is very expensive, and not available on the UK's National Health Service.


  1. "Can I get AIDS from...?". Retrieved 2010-06-26.
  2. "Antiretroviral therapy for HIV infection in adults and adolescents: recommendations for a public health approach" (PDF). World Health Organization: 1–145. 2010.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "Antiretroviral therapy for HIV infection in adults and adolescents: recommendations for a public health approach" (PDF). World Health Organization: 1–145. 2010.
  4. "HIV and Its Treatment" (PDF). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2012.
  5. "HIV and its treatment" (PDF). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2012.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Jain V, Deeks SG. (2010). "When to start antiretroviral therapy". Curr HIV/AIDS Rep. 7 (2): 60–68. doi:10.1007/s11904-010-0044-6.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Beard J, Feeley F, and Rosen S (2009). "Economic and quality of life outcomes of antiretroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS in developing countries: a systematic literature review". AIDS Care. 21 (11): 1343–1356.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. 8.0 8.1 McNicholl I. (2012). "Adverse Events of Antiretroviral Drugs". University of California San Francisco.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Mills P, Wu P, Ernst E. (2005). "Complementary therapies for the treatment of HIV: in search of the evidence". Int. J of STD and AIDS. 16 (6): 395–403. doi:10.1258/0956462054093962.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Liu JP, Manheimer E, Yang M. (2005). "Herbal medicines for treating HIV infection and AIDS". Cochrane Database Syst. Rev. 3. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD003937.pub2.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  11. Irlam JH, Visser MM, Rollins NN, Siegfried N. (2010). "Micronutrient supplementation in children and adults with HIV infection". Cochrane Database Syst. Rev. 12. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD003650.pub3.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  12. PrEP: PK modeling of daily TDF/FTC (Truvada) provides close to 100% protection against HIV nfection. PrEP: PK Modeling of Daily TDF/FTC (Truvada) Provides Close to 100% Protection Against HIV Infection -

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