Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a sexually transmitted and blood-borne infection caused by a virus. It attacks the immune system and, if left untreated, can cause acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Some people do not develop symptoms even though they have HIV.
Contrary to common misconceptions, you cannot get HIV by hugging, shaking hands, or kissing an infected person. For the virus to be transmitted, an infected fluid (blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or breast milk) needs to come into direct contact with another person’s blood. The virus must therefore have an entry point into a person’s bloodstream (i.e. an open wound, a cut, a burn, or another type of lesion).
The virus can be transmitted:
- Through unprotected sexual contact with an infected person (with or without symptoms), via:
- Vaginal penetration (penis penetrating the vagina)
- Anal penetration (penis penetrating the anus)
- Sharing sex toys
- Less frequently, by performing oral sex (fellatio or cunnilingus)
- By sharing drug inhalation or injection paraphernalia (straws, needles, pipes, etc.)
- A mother can pass the infection on to her baby during pregnancy, childbirth, or when breastfeeding.
The symptoms for HIV are similar to those of the flu and appear two to four weeks after contact with the virus. However, some people will have no symptoms for several years, meaning they can transmit HIV without knowing they are infected. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, an infected person who has symptoms may see the following signs:
- Sore throat
- Muscle and joint pain
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and groin
These symptoms go away on their own within 1 to 3 weeks, but the person is still infected with the virus.
When in doubt, contact Info-Santé (811) or get tested.
If left untreated, HIV can cause major health problems. Progression to AIDS can have serious health consequences and even lead to death.
Testing and treatment 🔍
Testing is done through a blood test that you can take three to four weeks after coming in contact with the virus. If you think you have been in contact with the virus, you should speak with a healthcare professional as soon as possible. Depending on your level of risk, you may be given post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which is to be taken within 72 hours of exposure in order to reduce your risk of contracting HIV.
There is currently no cure for HIV. However, there are medications that reduce the viral load (the amount of virus in the body) and prevent complications. When HIV is treated quickly by a healthcare professional, a person with the virus can live a long and healthy life. With the help of medication, they can even reduce their viral load to the point that they no longer risk transmitting the virus to sexual partners.
To avoid contracting or transmitting HIV, use a condom when engaging in vaginal or anal sex. Also avoid sharing sex toys and drug inhalation or injection paraphernalia. Ask your sexual partners if they have been tested recently.
If you have tested positive for HIV, you should tell your partners so that they can get tested and avoid passing it on to other people. Keep in mind that HIV weakens your immune system, which makes you more vulnerable to other STBBIs.