amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Young People and HIV/AIDS

Approximately 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV/AIDS, and more than 56,000 become infected with HIV every year. One-third of them are between the ages of 13 and 29. That means at least two teenagers and young adults in this country are infected with HIV every hour of every day. But many young people still do not think they are personally at risk for HIV.

How is HIV Spread?

People infected with HIV carry the virus in their body fluids, including blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk. The virus can spread only if these HIV-infected fluids enter the bloodstream of another person. This can take place (1) through the linings of the vagina, rectum, mouth, or the opening at the tip of the penis; (2) through injection with a syringe; or (3) through a break in the skin, such as a cut or sore. The most common ways that people become infected with HIV are:

  • Unprotected sexual intercourse (either vaginal or anal) with someone who has HIV. The majority of HIV-positive young adults in the U.S. become infected this way;
  • Unprotected oral sex with someone who has HIV. There are far fewer cases of HIV transmission attributed to oral sex than to either vaginal or anal intercourse, but oral–genital contact does pose a risk of HIV infection;
  • Sharing needles, syringes, or injection equipment with someone who has HIV. HIV can survive in used syringes for a month or more. That’s why people who inject drugs should never reuse or share syringes or drug preparation equipment. This includes needles or syringes used to inject both legal and illegal drugs as well as other types of needles, such as those used for body piercing and tattoos;
  • Mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy, childbirth, or breast-feeding. Any woman who is pregnant or considering becoming pregnant should be tested for HIV. In the U.S., mother-to-infant transmission has dropped to just a few cases each year because pregnant women are routinely tested for HIV. Those who test positive can get drugs to prevent HIV from being passed on to their fetus or infant, and they are counseled not to breast-feed.


Are You Afraid You May Already Have HIV?

Some people develop mild, temporary flu-like symptoms or persistent swollen glands immediately after becoming infected with HIV. But symptoms are not a good indicator of HIV infection, because many people don’t experience any symptoms for many years. Even if you look and feel healthy, you could still be infected.

You may be at risk if you have had unprotected sex or if the condom broke during sex, if you have multiple partners or have discovered your partner was not monogamous, if you have shared needles, if you recently tested positive for another sexually transmitted infection, or if you were sexually assaulted. And it is important to know that HIV is more easily passed from men to women, or from the insertive partner to the receptive partner.

If you think there’s a chance you may have been exposed to HIV, you should get tested as soon as possible.


What Happens When You Get Tested?

There are several types of HIV tests. The most commonly used HIV tests detect HIV antibodies – the substances the body creates in response to becoming infected with HIV. The most basic is the HIV antibody test, which uses a mouth swab or finger stick and takes 20 minutes to generate results. A positive antibody test is always followed by an antigen test to confirm the first test. If doubts still persist, doctors usually recommend a third very sensitive and expensive test that can detect the presence of the virus itself.

Bear in mind—it normally takes three months after the last possible exposure to HIV before a person will test positive. Since the virus is most infectious in the earliest weeks after HIV infection, and since HIV antibody tests cannot definitely confirm infection earlier than three months, you should take great care to avoid unprotected sex if you think you may have been exposed to HIV recently.

A positive HIV test result indicates that antibodies to HIV were detected. It does not mean that you have AIDS or that you will get sick right away. And although there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, many opportunistic infections can be prevented or treated.

Likewise, negative test results do not necessarily rule out HIV infection, because there is a window period between HIV infection and the appearance of HIV antibodies. If you have engaged in risky activities, it is important to be re-tested every three months.


Where Can You Go to Get Tested?

Many young people who are HIV positive don’t know it, which means they can’t take important steps to protect themselves or other people, or to get the medical care they need. It's ideal to get tested at a place that provides counseling because counselors can help you understand what your test results mean, answer questions about how to protect yourself and others, and refer you to local HIV-related resources.

You can be tested by your physician, at a local health clinic, or on your own at home. Conventional HIV tests, including one of the home test kits, the Access HIV-1 Test System, are sent to a laboratory for testing. It can take a week or two before the test results are available.

Today, many facilities use rapid HIV tests that can give accurate results in as little as 20 minutes. Similarly, the OraQuick test, which can be purchased at drugstores and used at home, requires only a mouth swab and gives results in about 20 to 40 minutes.

Many states offer anonymous HIV testing. In most testing sites, counselors are available to help you understand the meaning of the test results, suggest ways you can protect yourself and others, and refer you to appropriate local resources. To find an HIV testing site near you, visit, or call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 24-hour toll-free hotline at 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636).


Why Is It Important to Know if You’ve Got HIV?

If you think you may have HIV, it is important to find out as soon as possible. HIV is most easily transmitted when the level of virus in the body is at its highest—shortly after HIV infection and at the late stage of the disease. Even in the early stages of HIV infection, you can take concrete steps to protect your long-term health. Beginning medical care before you begin to get sick may give you many more years of healthy life. And knowing you’re HIV positive allows you to take the necessary precautions to prevent others from becoming infected.

If you are HIV positive, it is important to see your doctor regularly. Get tested for tuberculosis and other opportunistic infections. Keep your immune system strong through good nutrition, adequate sleep, and not smoking or drinking alcohol. And find a support system; it is important to remember that you are not alone.


How Can You Tell if Someone Has HIV/AIDS?

You can’t tell if someone has HIV or AIDS simply by looking. An infected person can appear completely healthy. But anyone infected with HIV can infect other people, even if no symptoms are present and even if they believe they are negative. If you are sexually active, the only way to be sure you don’t have HIV is to get tested.

If you’re not sexually active, you’ve already eliminated the most common cause of HIV infection among teens. But if you have made the decision to have sexual intercourse, you need to protect yourself.

HIV/AIDS doesn’t discriminate. That means that anyone who engages in risky behavior can become infected with HIV. But the epidemic has taken an especially heavy toll on some groups of young people, especially African-American and Latino youth, young women, and young men who have sex with men (whether or not they think of themselves as gay).

About 1 in 4 (26 percent) of all new HIV infections is among youth ages 13 to 24 years. About 60 percent of youth with HIV do not know they are infected and so don’t receive treatment, putting them at risk for sickness and early death. These youth can also unknowingly pass HIV to others. Nearly 60% of new infections in youth occur in African Americans, about 20% in Hispanics/Latinos, and about 20% in whites. In 2007, African Americans represented 17 percent of teenagers in the overall population but accounted for 72 percent of HIV/AIDS cases in this age group; among people 20–24, they comprised 16 percent of the age group but accounted for 61 percent of HIV/AIDS cases. Adolescent females are also at risk. In 2007, females accounted for 31 percent of HIV/AIDS cases among teenagers, and 23 percent of HIV/AIDS cases among people aged 20–24. Young men who have sex with men (MSM), especially those of color, have the highest risk of HIV infection among youth. From 2003–2006, young MSM represented 54 percent of all cases of HIV/AIDS among those aged 13–24.

Remember, it’s not who you are but what you do that determines whether you can become infected with HIV. 


When Is Safer Sex Important?

The rules are simple. Whenever you have sexual intercourse (or oral sex), practice safer sex by using a condom or dental dam (a square of latex recommended for use during oral sex). When used properly and consistently, condoms are close to 99 percent effective in preventing transmission of HIV. But remember:

  • Use only latex condoms (or dental dams);
  • Use only water-based lubricants;
  • Use protection each and every time you have sex.

Other methods of birth control (such as the diaphragm and birth control pills) do not protect against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Practicing safer sex will help you avoid other STIs, many of which can increase your risk of contracting HIV or giving it to someone else. You should also limit the number of sexual partners you have, and limit the use of alcohol or recreational drugs, which can impair judgment during sex.


Is Protection Necessary During Oral Sex?

While it’s much easier to contract HIV through unprotected vaginal or anal sex, unprotected oral sex is not a completely safe substitute. If you choose to perform or receive oral sex—whether your partner is male or female—it's wise to guard against the transmission of HIV. Here’s how:

  • Use a latex condom each and every time you perform oral-penile sex (fellatio); or
  • Use plastic food wrap, a latex condom cut open, or a dental dam during oral-vaginal sex (cunnilingus) or oral-anal sex (analingus).

These methods provide a physical barrier to HIV transmission and help keep you safe from other sexually transmitted infections, many of which can increase your risk of contracting HIV or giving it to someone else.


Aren’t HIV and AIDS the Same Thing?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). When HIV infects someone, the virus enters the body and begins to multiply and attack immune cells that normally protect us from disease. Eventually the body's immune system breaks down and is unable to fight off opportunistic infections and other illnesses ranging from pneumonia and cancer to blindness and dementia. Only when someone with HIV begins to experience these specific infections and illnesses are they diagnosed with AIDS.


Is There a Cure for HIV/AIDS?

AIDS is still a life-threatening disease for which there is no cure and no vaccine. New medications are helping many people with HIV/AIDS live longer, healthier lives, but the combination or “cocktail” treatments don’t work for everyone. They’re very expensive and often cause serious side effects, including liver damage, increased risk of heart attack, a form of osteoporosis, chronic diarrhea, rashes, fat redistribution, and high cholesterol. And because HIV mutates constantly, the virus often develops resistance and the medications become ineffective. The best defense is to use a condom.


Do STIs Make It Easier to Get HIV?

HIV/AIDS isn’t the only sexually transmitted infection young people have to worry about. There’s a virtual alphabet soup of STIs floating around out there, including chlamydia, genital warts, gonorrhea, herpes, and syphilis.  A 2009 study showed that approximately one in four girls aged 14–19 in the U.S. have had at least one STI.

Having a sexually transmitted infection can increase your risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV and developing AIDS. This is true whether you have open sores or breaks in the skin (as with syphilis, herpes, and chancroid) or not (as with chlamydia and gonorrhea). Where there are breaks in the skin, HIV can enter and exit the body more easily. But even when you have undamaged skin, STIs can cause biological changes that may make HIV transmission more likely. Studies show that people with HIV who are infected with another STI are two to five times more likely to contract or transmit the virus through sex. What to do? Practice safer sex.


Can You Get HIV Through Casual Contact?

HIV is not an easy virus to pass from one person to another, like the flu. It is not transmitted through food or air (for instance, by coughing or sneezing). There has never been a case where a person was infected by a household member, relative, co-worker, or friend through casual or everyday contact such as sharing eating utensils and bathroom facilities or hugging and kissing. (Most scientists agree that while HIV transmission through deep or prolonged “French” kissing might be possible, it’s extremely unlikely.) There have been no recorded cases of transmission through contact with saliva, tears, or sweat.

Mosquitoes, fleas, and other insects do not transmit HIV; when they bite a person, they inject their own saliva, not their blood or the blood of the last person they bit. In the U.S., thorough screening of the blood supply for HIV since 1985 has virtually eliminated the risk of infection through blood transfusions. And you can’t get HIV from giving blood at a blood bank or other established blood collection center; they use sterile-packed needles every time they draw blood.



Further Reading

  • For information on HIV testing, including a pdf brochure you can print out, click here.
  • For more statistics on HIV/AIDS in the United States, click here.


Last updated December 2012