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What is HIV?

HIV = Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV attacks the body’s immune system, reducing its ability to fight disease and infection.

What is AIDS?

AIDS = Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS develops from HIV infection when the person infected develops an “opportunistic infection.” Opportunistic infections are common infections (i.e. pneumonia or chonic yeast infection) that can prove to be life-threatening for people with HIV because their immune system no longer has the strength to fight them off.

Is there a cure?

There is NO cure for HIV infection. HIV infection is treated with a combination of anti-retroviral drugs, which target the different ways the virus infects healthy blood cells. These drugs are effective, however if the virus mutates, they will form a resistance to the medication and the drugs will no longer be useful. Like many medications, these drugs can have severe side effects that can cause other life-threatening illnesses.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is not transmitted through casual contact. HIV can be transferred only through the exchange of bodily fluids, including blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or breast milk. These fluids can be transferred through:

  • Unprotected sexual activity
  • Sharing used unclean needles or syringes (or other tools used to pierce the skin)
  • Childbirth, in utero, and breast feeding
  • Receiving transfusions of infected blood, blood products, organs, or donated sperm

For more information, please see the Canadian AIDS Society’s HIV Transmission: Guidelines for Assessing Risk.

How can the risk of HIV transmission be lowered?

HIV prevention and harm reduction is a continuum, that is, you can entirely eliminate the risk of transmission through abstinence or take other precautions to reduce risks, since abstinence isn’t always an option for some people. Here are some ways of reducing the risk of HIV transmission (note that these activities still include some risk of transmission of HIV):

  • Practicing safe-sex by using latex or polyurethane condoms
  • Avoiding sharing sex toys
  • Avoiding cunnilingus during times of higher susceptibility (i.e. during menstruation)
  • Stopping fellatio/intercourse before ejaculation
  • Performing fellatio or cunnilingus with a condom or other latex barrier
  • Using new needles/syringes each time
  • Taking pre-natal anti-HIV therapy
  • Refraining from breast-feeding

For more information, please see the Canadian AIDS Society’s HIV Transmission: Guidelines for Assessing Risk.

What are some of the social causes of HIV?

While we know how HIV is transmitted physically, increasingly, social determinants are being linked to a person’s exposure to situations where HIV transmission is more likely. The following are some of the social issues that are being linked to higher risk for HIV:

  • Poverty
  • Homelessness
  • Stigma/discrimination
  • Addiction
  • Violence
  • Untreated mental health problems
  • Lack of employment opportunities
  • Powerlessness
  • Lack of choice
  • Lack of legal status (i.e. undocumented refugees)
  • Lack of social support

What do I do if I think I might have been exposed to HIV?

If you think you might have been exposed to HIV, speak to your health care provider or contact the AIDS Service Hotline nearest you by clicking here.

How long should I wait before being tested?

If you think you have been exposed to HIV, you should get tested right away. Today’s tests are quite sensitive and can detect HIV antibodies in as little as 12 to 15 days. However, prevention workers and public health officials still recommend that a follow-up test be conducted after a three-month window period. It is important to note that the window period is for a single risk of exposure. If you are having multiple exposure risks, we recommend that you talk to a health professional or HIV educator to discuss ways that you can protect yourself, including harm reduction methods mentioned above.

How can I tell if I have HIV?

Testing is the only reliable way of determining whether or not you have HIV. Symptoms are unreliable in diagnosing HIV because each person with HIV may have a different combination of symptoms. As well, a certain set of symptoms may also be correlated to another illness. Some warning signs may include:

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Dry cough
  • Recurring fever and profuse night sweats
  • Profound and unexplained fatigue
  • Swollen lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck
  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than a week
  • White spots or unusual blemishes on the tongue, in the mouth, or in the throat
  • Pneumonia
  • Red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
  • Memory loss, depression, and other neurological disorders