Updated March 2013
There are many myths about HIV. A myth is a story or an idea that is not true. In dealing with HIV, it is important to be able to tell reality from myth. Believing myths can result in fear, in denial, and even in damage to your health.
The Reality: If you do not have HIV, you do not get AIDS. If you have AIDS, you have HIV. Over 20 years of solid scientific proof has verified this. AIDS is not caused by party drugs, AZT, government conspiracies, or anything else but the HIV virus.
The Reality: This used to be true. In the 1980s, there were very few treatment options for people living with HIV (HIV+), and many HIV+ people died from AIDS. Thankfully, however, this is no longer the case. We now have more and better HIV drugs. If you stick to your treatment regimen and take good care of your body, there is no reason you can not live a long, full life with HIV.
The Reality: Unfortunately, there is no universal cure for HIV or AIDS right now. Recent improvements in HIV drugs have made it possible for many HIV+ people to live long, healthy, and full lives. In addition, there have been isolated cases in which someone previously infected with HIV no longer has detectable virus in their system. The Berlin patient is one example – a man who was diagnosed with HIV in 1995, received an HIV-resistant donor’s stem cells for his bone marrow transplant in 2007, and is now reported to be HIV-free. Another example is a toddler from Mississippi who was born with HIV, treated with HIV drugs for 18 months, and then stopped. After five months of not taking any HIV drugs, she was found to have no detectable virus. There is debate about whether either of these people is actually ‘cured’ of HIV – only time will tell. Although both cases provide hope and clues for a potential cure, and scientists are working hard to find one, there is no universal cure yet.
The Reality: HIV drugs, known as antiretrovirals, do not cure HIV, but they can help keep people healthy for many years. People died from AIDS before antiretrovirals became available. Since combination drug therapy for HIV was begun in 1996, the average life expectancy for people living with HIV (HIV+) in Europe and North America has increased. In addition, death rates for HIV+ people who receive combination antiretroviral treatment have dropped. Unfortunately, the HIV drugs do have side effects and toxicity (for some people) that can be life-threatening in very rare cases. The good news is that many of the newer HIV medications have fewer side effects and are easier to take.
The Reality: Some HIV+ people are tempted to stop taking their HIV drugs for a short time so that they can take a break from the drugs’ side effects or from being reminded that they are living with HIV. Studies have shown, however, that interrupting your treatment or taking a ‘drug holiday’ can cause problems. Stopping your HIV drugs can: (1) give the virus a chance to multiply and cause your viral load to rise, (2) give the virus a chance to develop resistance to your HIV drugs, and (3) cause your CD4 cell count to drop and your immune system to weaken.
The Reality: The 'AIDS test' is really an HIV test that measures HIV antibodies, which are special proteins that respond to infection. If you are infected, your immune system will make antibodies against HIV. The HIV antibody test (called ELISA or EIA) is one of the most reliable medical tests. Before a positive antibody test result is reported, it is confirmed by another test called a Western Blot. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the combined accuracy of the antibody test plus the Western Blot is greater than 99 percent. Rapid HIV tests are convenient, because they give results in about 20 minutes. However, positive results from rapid tests are preliminary and need to be confirmed by a Western Blot.
The Reality: Viral load measures the amount of HIV in a person’s blood. Many studies have shown that people with high viral loads are much more likely to become ill or die than those with low viral loads. They also give us important information about how well HIV drugs are working.
The Reality: Often, people who are infected with HIV do not look or feel sick. Many times, they do not even know they are infected. Taking an HIV test is the only sure way of knowing if you or someone else is infected with HIV.
The Reality: The majority of HIV+ people worldwide are straight (heterosexual). Men infect women, and women infect men. Risk is not about labels or categories of people. Any person who has unprotected sex or shares needles with someone who is HIV+ or whose HIV status is not definitely known is at risk for HIV.
The Reality: Because HIV+ people often do not ‘look sick,’ it is important to know your partner’s HIV status before having unprotected sex. In an ideal world, if you and your partner remained monogamous and tested negative for HIV after the 3-month window since your last possible exposures, unprotected sex would be safe. However, if your partner was HIV+ before you met, if he or she is having sex outside the relationship, or if your sexually faithful partner is injecting drugs and sharing needles or drug equipment, you are at risk for getting HIV. Please do not confuse love or commitment with safety.
The Reality: Age does not protect you from becoming infected with HIV. In fact, people over 50 years old are getting HIV at an increasing rate and are estimated to represent half of all HIV+ Americans by 2015. Unfortunately, older adults are frequently ignored in discussions about HIV prevention and care and so are not aware that they are at risk. For more information, see our info sheet on Older Women: At Risk for HIV.
The Reality: HIV can be spread during any unsafe or unprotected sex. Most forms of birth control ONLY protect against unwanted pregnancy, NOT sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like HIV. The only birth control method that prevents pregnancy AND significantly reduces the risk of getting HIV is the condom. For tips on how to make your sex safer, see our Safer Sex info sheet.
The Reality: If you have had no sexual contact at all, you are not at risk of getting HIV from sex. If you have had no sexual contact but have shared needles or drug equipment while using drugs, you are at risk. If you have had oral or anal sex, but consider yourself a 'virgin' because you have not had vaginal sex, you are still at risk. To learn more about the risks of different sexual activities, see our Safer Sex info sheet.
The Reality: Women who only ever had sex with women are generally at much lower risk for getting any sexually transmitted disease. But in rare cases, they can still get HIV. One report tells of a lesbian who was infected through sharing sex toys with an HIV+ woman. Also, many women who consider themselves lesbians have had sex with men, and can get infected that way. Lesbians who use drugs and share drug injection equipment can get HIV from a needle or syringe that has been used by someone who is HIV+.
The Reality: HIV is only transmitted through infected blood, semen (pre-cum and cum), vaginal fluids, and breast milk. The most common ways for HIV to be transmitted are through unprotected sexual contact and/or sharing drug equipment with an HIV+ person. HIV can also be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding.
The Reality: With proper health care and HIV drugs, HIV+ women can have healthy pregnancies. There are many things you can do to prevent spreading HIV to your partner and your baby. Advances in HIV treatment have greatly lowered the chances that a mother will pass HIV on to her baby. If the mother takes proper HIV drugs, the chances of spreading HIV to the baby can be less than one in 50. For more information, see our Pregnancy and HIV and Getting Pregnant and HIV info sheet.
The Reality: Unprotected sex between two HIV+ people can lead one or both of them to be infected with a different strain or type of HIV. This is often called reinfection or superinfection. This can happen even when the partner you are with now is the person who originally infected you with HIV. HIV changes differently in each person’s body over time. So the strain your partner had originally may not be the strain he or she has now. Different strains of HIV can be drug-resistant, which makes it hard for your treatment to work and for you to stay healthy. Practicing safer sex protects you from reinfection and other STDs.
The Reality: You are always in control. You can quit any study you participate in at any time for any reason. Some people have heard about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which was conducted before the government established strong ethical guidelines for how clinical trials should be done. The US government now has strict rules and regulations that all government and drug company researchers must follow to protect participants in clinical trials. (See The Well Project info sheets on clinical trials).
Myths about HIV are very harmful. They can cause you to be afraid of something that is not dangerous. And they can make you feel like something is not dangerous when it really is!
Be sure to learn the truth and get the facts right. Sometimes seemingly well-informed or well-meaning people give out wrong information. If you have a question about HIV, talk to your health care provider, your local AIDS organization, or the CDC National AIDS Hotline at 1-800-CDC-INFO (232-4636).