What is HIV?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. It is spread through certain body fluids, including blood, sexual fluids (like semen and vaginal or rectal fluids) and breast milk. Most people get HIV from having unprotected sex (including vaginal or anal sex) with someone who has HIV, or from sharing needles or other drug injection equipment with someone who has HIV.

Early symptoms of HIV infection may include cough, body aches, headaches, nasal congestion, and sore throat. These symptoms usually go away on their own and can be mistaken for flu-like illness. Some people may have no early symptoms at all and may feel healthy. The only way to know for sure whether you have HIV is to get tested.

Over time, HIV infection damages the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off infections and other diseases, including heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, and cancer. Left untreated, HIV infection can lead to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). AIDS is the most severe phase of HIV infection. People with AIDS have such badly damaged immune systems that they get severe infections that don’t normally infect healthy people, called opportunistic infections, and eventually the infection leads to death. No effective cure exists, but with early diagnosis and proper medical care, HIV can be managed and controlled.

Who is at risk?


Travelers are generally at low risk for getting HIV unless they act in ways that could put them at risk, such as having unprotected sex or sharing needles with people who are or might be infected with HIV. Because people with HIV infection may appear healthy for many years, you often can’t tell if someone has HIV.

Some developing countries may not adequately screen their blood supplies, and travelers could become infected by receiving blood transfusions, blood products, or organ/tissue transplants that are contaminated with HIV. Less commonly, HIV may also be spread by being stuck with an HIV-contaminated needle or other sharp object. This is a risk mainly for health care workers.

HIV infection affects people around the world. Sub-Saharan Africa remains the most affected part of the world, but other regions significantly affected by HIV include Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

What can travelers do to prevent HIV?

Before travel:

  • Talk with your health care provider about “PrEP” (or pre-exposure prophylaxis). Travelers who are at high risk for HIV infection can discuss getting a daily pill that prevents HIV, known as “PrEP”. Click here to find out your risk of HIV.
  • Get tested. Knowing your status is important because it helps you make healthy decisions to prevent getting or transmitting HIV.
  • Consider medical evacuation insurance.
    • An injury or illness that requires invasive medical or dental treatment (injection, blood transfusion, stitches, etc.) could result in HIV infection or other illnesses if the blood supply is not properly screened or the equipment is not sterile.
    • Medical evacuation insurance may cover the cost to transfer you to the nearest place where you can get safe and complete care. Some policies may cover your eventual return to your home country. For more information, see Insurance(/travel/page/insurance).

During travel:

  • Before having sex for the first time with a new partner, you and your partner should talk about your sexual and drug-use history, disclose your HIV status, and consider getting tested for HIV and learning the results.
    • Don’t assume someone is HIV- or STD-free if they don’t bring it up, or based on how they look.
  • If you have sex, use condoms every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex, from start to finish.
  • Do not inject drugs or share needles or other devices that can break the skin. If you do inject drugs, use only new, sterile needles and works.
  • If you get tattoos, piercings, or acupuncture abroad, make sure a new, sterile needle is used each time.
  • If you get medical or dental care abroad, make sure the equipment is unused or properly sterilized.

If you think you could have gotten HIV during travel:

  • Talk to your doctor or nurse if you feel seriously ill, especially if you have a fever or any other flu-like symptoms.
  • No effective cure exists for HIV. But with early diagnosis and proper medical care, HIV can be managed and controlled. Treatment for HIV is called antiretroviral therapy, or “ART.” If taken as directed, every day, ART can dramatically prolong the lives of many people infected with HIV, keep them healthy, and greatly lower their chance of infecting others.

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