WHAT IS HIV/AIDS?
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus, commonly known as HIV, is spread when infected bodily fluids from one person enter another person's body. AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, is caused by HIV. Everyone with AIDS has HIV, but not everyone who is HIV positive has AIDS. There are two ways that doctors decide when a person infected with HIV is considered to have advanced to an AIDS diagnosis:
From other infections: When a person's immune system is so weakened by HIV that one or more specific illnesses, called opportunistic infections, take hold. These illnesses do not generally affect a person with a healthy immune system.
From certain blood tests: When the number of healthy immune system cells in an HIV-positive person's body drops to a certain low point.
To slow the progression of HIV to AIDS early diagnosis, care, and treatment is critical.
How quickly and whether someone with HIV advances to AIDS depends on many different factors. One important factor is how soon after HIV infection a person is diagnosed and gets into care. Also, just like any other health problem, different people's bodies respond differently to HIV. So, it's important to get tested, get care if you are positive and protect yourself and your partner(s).
HOW DOES SOMEONE GET HIV?
HIV is primarily spread through unprotected sexual contact, including anal, oral as well as vaginal. HIV can also be spread by sharing needles.
Any unprotected sex that involves the possible sharing of semen, pre-cum or blood with someone who is HIV positive carries some level of risk. And if you think unprotected sex using the withdrawal method - that is, ejaculating outside your partner's body - is safe, the presence of HIV in pre-cum means it's not.
Unprotected anal sex especially for "bottoms" or the partner who is penetrated during sex, carries a higher risk of infection than unprotected oral sex, and any partner receiving ejaculation into the anus or mouth is in the riskiest position. Still, it's important to remember that "tops", or penetrating partners, are also at risk of infection during unprotected sex.
So what is safe? Good news, romantics: kissing in general is not as risk behavior. And deep, open mouth kissing presents remote risk if there are sores or bleeding. Additionally, saliva, tears or sweat have never been shown to cause HIV infection. And it bears repeating: HIV is not spread through casual contact like holding hands or hugging, or by sharing drinks or sitting on toilet seats.
HOW DO I REDUCE MY RISK OF GETTING HIV?
Use condoms each and every time you have sex. This is the easiest and most effective way to prevent the spread of HIV and other STD's. If you use needles, don't share them.
When it comes to your and your partners HIV status, get in the know: Get tested regularly, and ask your partners to get tested, too. Knowing is sexy.
IF I THINK I MAY HAVE BEEN EXPOSED TO HIV IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO TO REDUCE RISK OF INFECTION?
If you are concerned that you may have been exposed to HIV get an HIV test. If you are positive, talk with a health care provider to review best course of care for you. A post-exposure HIV prophylaxis (PEP) - the same medications that are used to treat people who are HIV-positive may be recommended. The CDC advises that PEP needs to be started within 72 hours of your possible exposure to HIV to reduce the risk of infection after unprotected sex. However, don't rely on PEP in place of using a condom. Not all insurers will cover PEP and the full course may be expensive. PEP is not an alternative to prevention and condoms are a lot easier to get and less expensive. It's for emergency situations only.
IF I THINK I'M HIV POSITIVE, WHAT SHOULD I DO?
Some people who become infected with HIV begin exhibiting symptoms of new infection within a few days or weeks of exposure, although not everyone will. When symptoms are present - which may include fever, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and night sweats - they can be hard to distinguish between other common conditions, such as the flu.
If you think you've been exposed to HIV, see a health care provider and get tested. It can take as long as three to six months for the body to develop enough antibodies to be measurable by standard tests. So if infection occurred recently it may not be detected right away. The time period between HIV exposure and a positive test is called the "window period," during which you could test negative for HIV but still be infected with HIV. Therefore, it is important to get tested (or re-tested) to know for sure.
Knowing whether you're HIV-positive as soon as possible is important both to prevent exposing others and also to make timely decisions about HIV treatment. Since many people who are HIV infected do not know it - some for years - it's important to get tested regularly as that is the only sure way to know. If you are HIV positive, early diagnosis and treatment is critical to your health. Delaying finding out does not help you or those you love.
IF I AM ALREADY HIV-POSITIVE ARE THERE ANY ADDITIONAL RISKS TO HAVING SEX WITH SOMEONE ELSE WHO IS HIV-POSITIVE?
Now let's say you're HIV positive, and so is your partner. Condoms don't matter, right? Wrong. There really is no raw-dog safety zone with HIV. Because there are so many different strains of the virus, there is a possibility of becoming infected with a different, potentially more virulent strain (sometimes called Superinfected) which could make you resistant to treatment. So always use a condom, even if you're both infected.
ARE PEOPLE WITH UNDETECTABLE VIRAL LOAD STILL ABLE TO TRANSMIT THE VIRUS?
The short answer is: yes. HIV treatment lowers viral load and can reduce the risk of HIV transmission during sex, but even someone with no detectable virus in his blood can still have pockets of HIV in semen and pre-cum. There's no getting around it: rubber up before you get down.
WHAT IS THE LINK BETWEEN HIV AND OTHER SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES (STDS)?
We're not trying to rain on the sex parade but: people with STDs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes or syphilis are at greater risk of getting HIV if they have unprotected sex with someone who is HIV positive. In addition, if someone with HIV is also infected with another STD, he or she is more likely to transmit the virus through sexual contact. The good news is that many STD's are curable, and all are treatable. Get tested so you can reduce your risk of contracting HIV if you're exposed.