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The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a pathogen that, in the absence of treatment, results in acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), a condition that undermines the body’s natural defense systems, rendering it vulnerable to disease.

The first stage of HIV infection is called acute infection. 2–4 weeks after contracting HIV, many experience flu-like symptoms (fever, rashes, headaches, swollen and tender lymph nodes) that last for 1–2 weeks. Some individuals develop opportunistic infections at this stage, others experience no symptoms at all.

During the second stage, an HIV-positive person remains asymptomatic for a period that can last from around 3 to more than 20 years (an average of 8). This is called clinical latency. As the stage comes to an end, an infected person might experience fever, muscle pains, weight loss, enlarged lymph nodes and gastrointestinal problems.

The third and last stage of HIV infection is AIDS. It is defined in two ways: a CD4+ T cell count below 200 cells per µL, and the occurrence of specific illnesses—opportunistic diseases that take advantage of the fact that the body is practically defenseless.

Almost anyone can be infected with HIV. The only exception are people with a rare mutation of the gene encoding C-C chemokine receptor type 5 (a.k.a. CCR5 or CD195), a protein that acts as a co-receptor for HIV.

HIV can be transmitted via bodily fluids. It is present in all bodily fluids of HIV-positive people, but not all fluids have the same transmissibility. HIV can be transmitted through blood, semen (including pre-cum), vaginal and anal mucus, and breast milk.

Thanks to developments in medicine, being diagnosed with HIV is no longer a death sentence. The condition can be treated via antiretroviral therapy, which significantly slows the progression of the disease, and can lower the viral load to the extent that it becomes undetectable, which prevents transmission between partners. HIV-positive people can live normal lives in spite of their condition, posing virtually no risk to others if taking proper precautions.

What precautions should one take when living with an HIV-positive intimate partner? What is seroconversion? Read more about HIV/AIDS here.

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