AIDS is short for: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
It is a serious condition in which the body's defences against some illnesses are broken down. People with AIDS develop many different kinds of disease which the body would usually fight off quite easily. There is clear evidence that AIDS is caused by a virus called HIV, which is short for: Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
If a person becomes infected with HIV, does that mean they have AIDS?
No. HIV is an unusual virus because a person can be infected with it for many years and yet appear to be perfectly healthy. But the virus gradually multiplies inside the body and eventually destroys the body's ability to fight off illnesses.
It is still not certain that everyone with HIV infection will get AIDS. It seems likely that most people with HIV will develop serious problems with their health. But this may be after many years. A person with HIV may not know they are infected but can pass the virus on to other people.The two main ways a person can become infected with HIV are through the virus being present in sexual fluids and through blood of infected people. If infected blood or sexual fluid gets into your blood, then you will become infected.
If a man with HIV has vaginal intercourse without a condom, infected fluid could pass into the woman's blood stream through a tiny cut or sore inside her body. This can be so small that you don't know about it. If a couple have anal intercourse the risk of infection is greater than with vaginal intercourse.
If a woman with HIV has sexual intercourse without a condom, HIV could get into the man's blood through a sore patch on his penis or by getting into the tube which runs down the penis.
If there is any contact with blood during sex, this increases the risk of infection. For example, there may be blood in the vagina if intercourse happens during a woman's period. There can also be bleeding during anal intercourse.
Safe sex means sex which is absolutely safe. Lots of activities are completely safe. You can kiss, cuddle, massage and rub each other's bodies. But if you have any cuts or sores on your hands make sure they are covered with plasters (band-aids).
Oral sex (one person kissing, licking or sucking the sexual areas of another person) does carry some risk of infection. If a person sucks the penis of an infected man, for example, infected fluid could get into the mouth. The virus could then get into the blood if you have bleeding gums or tiny sores somewhere in the mouth. The same is true if infected sexual fluids from a woman get into the mouth of her partner. But infection from oral sex alone seems to be very rare. Safer sex also means using a condom during sexual intercourse. Using a condom is not absolutely safe as condoms can break. If you're drunk or high it can be easier for 'things to happen'. You might have sex with someone and find it difficult to use a condom. You may even forget altogether.
HIV can also be passed on by sharing equipment used to inject drugs. Blood can remain on needles and syringes ('works'). If you share, and a person infected with HIV used the works first, the virus can be injected directly into your blood.
Some people think that AIDS is something that other people need to worry about — gays, drug users, people who sleep around. These ideas are mistaken. All young people, whoever they are, wherever they live, need to take the threat of HIV seriously.
Your chance of becoming infected depends entirely on how you behave. You can only become infected with HIV if you engage in risky activities. If you have sex without a condom with a number of different sexual partners, or share needles or syringes with several other drug users, you increase your chances of coming into contact with someone already infected.
Condoms can only be effective if used correctly. To find out more about condoms and how to use them, look at the 'using condoms' page.
AIDS has made sex more difficult; it is one more thing to think about. But AIDS is not something to be so frightened of that it puts you off ever having sex.
Be clear about the risks and if you do decide to have a sexual relationship with someone, avoid activities which are risky.