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Basics of HIV.

Read about general information on HIV, stages, and treatment.

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It’s a virus that passes from person to person through certain bodily fluids. If HIV infection isn’t treated, it can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Because there is no way for the body to completely get rid of HIV, those who have the virus will have it for their entire lives.1

Once HIV enters the body, it attacks cells in the immune system called T-cells. T-cells are necessary to fight infections from other viruses or bacteria. If HIV is left untreated and the virus continues to attack T-cells, the patient becomes more susceptible to infections and certain immune-related cancers.

How does HIV progress?

If it is not treated, HIV will progress through three stages:

  • Acute infection
  • Clinical latency (inactivity)
  • Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)

The acute infection stage starts two to four weeks after exposure. In this stage, patients may experience flu-like symptoms, which are the body’s response to the infection. During this time, patients are very contagious because there is a large amount of the virus in the body.

During the clinical latency stage, the virus is still active, but reproduces very slowly. Typically, patients don’t experience any symptoms. If the patient starts taking medication (called anti-retroviral therapy or ART) during this stage, it can last indefinitely.

AIDS is the third and final stage of HIV infection. It is marked by low T-cell counts and the emergence of opportunistic infections. Symptoms may include weight loss, fever, chills, swollen lymph glands and weakness.

How is HIV treated?

Once a person is diagnosed with HIV, anti-retroviral therapy (ART) is used to keep the virus from progressing. ART is a combination of medications that help to reduce the amount of virus in the body (viral load) and help prevent transmission of the virus to others. The patient’s doctor will determine which combination of medications will be most effective.

Like many medications, ART can have side effects for some patients. Common side effects include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Dry mouth
  • Headache
  • Rash
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Pain

If you are taking ART and experience side effects, your doctor or CVS Specialty CareTeam can help you manage them.

Other medication regimens, called PrEP and PEP, are available to help prevent infection and transmission of HIV. Read this article to learn more about PrEP and PEP. 

If you’ve been diagnosed with HIV and have questions about your condition or treatment, contact your doctor or your CVS Specialty CareTeam.

This information is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Talk to your doctor or health care provider about your medical condition and prior to starting any new treatment. CVS Specialty assumes no liability whatsoever for the information provided or for any diagnosis or treatment made as a result, nor is it responsible for the reliability of the content.

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1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Website, Accessed December 7, 2018.