What is it?
HIV – the Human Immunodeficiency Virus – is a virus that attacks the immune system, and leaves people vulnerable to opportunistic infections and cancers. Opportunistic infections are infections that happen in individuals who have compromised immune systems (meaning they can’t fight off the infections).
When the body can no longer fight infection, the disease is known as AIDS, which stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. On average, it takes more than 10 years to progress from initial HIV infection to AIDS. In some cases, it never progresses to AIDS, and in other cases, AIDS can revert back to HIV.
HIV is a reportable disease, however, you can get anonymous testing done which links a random number to your HIV test results. Anonymous testing still requires a report to a public health institution and some kind of current/previous partner notification.
How can you get it?
In order to contract HIV, three things need to take place at the same time:
- An infected bodily fluid needs to be present. Only five fluids can transmit the HIV virus: blood, semen, vaginal fluid, anal fluid and breast milk.
- There needs to be a point of entry into your bloodstream, like a cut. These cuts can be a microscopic tear in the vagina or anus that is painless and impossible to see.
- There needs to be a risk activity — here are different levels of risk to consider:
No Risk activities are those practices that have never been shown to transmit HIV and where the conditions necessary for transmission are not present. These include kissing, using unshared sex toys, and use of clean needles for drug use or tattooing.
Negligible Risk (also called theoretical risk) activities are those which have a potential for transmission as they involve the sharing of bodily fluids (breast milk, semen, blood, vaginal fluid, anal fluid). However, no recorded cases have ever been found. These include receiving fellatio or cunnilingus or performing them with a barrier, sharing toothbrushes or razors, and using sex toys with a condom.
Low Risk activities are those where bodily fluids are exchanged, and in certain circumstances can cause the transmission of HIV. Some cases have been reported in this category. These include having penetrative sex with a condom, performing oral sex without a condom, sharing needles, and giving birth with precautions taken (risky for the fetus, not the person giving birth)
High Risk activities are those that involve an exchange of body fluids and where studies have repeatedly linked them directly with cases of HIV transmission. These include anal or vaginal intercourse without a barrier, receiving shared sex toys without a condom, and sharing needles.
How do you know if you have it?
Many people do not experience symptoms for months or even years after contracting HIV. Therefore, it is important for people who are sexually active to get tested for HIV regularly (every 6 months, or with every new partner). Some symptoms may include the following:
- Dry cough and sore throat
- Experiencing abnormal shortness of breath
- Constant flu-like symptoms
- Rapid weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Thrush (a yeast infection in the throat)
How is HIV treated?
There is no cure, but anti-retroviral drugs can be taken to reduce symptoms and viral loads in the body.
How long before you can test positive for it?
- 6 weeks (although it can take up to 3 months for some people)
How can you help prevent it?
Birth and Breast Feeding:
- In Ontario, with a patient’s permission, testing for HIV is part of standard prenatal or early antenatal (after giving birth) blood testing.
- HIV positive individuals can take anti-retroviral drugs during pregnancy in order to reduce the chance of transmitting HIV to their child
- The government of Ontario supplies formula to HIV positive parents for up to one year after the birth of a child, since they cannot safely breastfeed
Sharing needles or unsanitary tattooing/piercing instruments:
- Do not share needles
- Make sure you are aware of the health inspection certificates of the tattoo/piercing parlour before getting tattooed or pierced
- Make sure you see the tattoo artist/piercer open new needles and throw-out used needles
How are you tested?
- A blood test is required to test for HIV. Rapid HIV testing is also available at some locations. Rapid testing involves testing a small drop of blood, which produces a test result within minutes.