Information about HIV
What is HIV?
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus.
HIV is a virus that can weaken your immune system, the body’s built-in defence against disease and illness. You can have HIV without knowing it. That’s why it’s so important to get tested.
With proper treatment and care, people with HIV can live long and healthy lives and avoid passing HIV to others. In fact, a person living with HIV who is on successful treatment cannot pass HIV to their sex partners.
There is no vaccine to prevent HIV but there are things you can do to avoid passing or getting HIV. Read on to learn more!
Who can get HIV?
Anyone can get HIV, no matter…
- your age
- your sex, gender or sexual orientation
- your race or ethnic origin
How does a person get HIV?
HIV can only be passed by these five body fluids:
- semen (including pre-cum)
- rectal fluid
- vaginal fluid
- breast milk*
HIV can be passed when the virus in one of these fluids containing HIV gets into the bloodstream of another person—through broken skin, the opening of the penis or the wet linings of the body, such as the vagina, rectum or foreskin. HIV cannot be passed through healthy, unbroken skin.
* It is important to know that research around breast-feeding and HIV is ongoing. Conversations about pregnancy/breast-feeding should be between the breast-feeding parent and a doctor – it is not anyone else’s business.
The two main ways that HIV can be passed are:
- through sex
- by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs (including steroids or hormones)
HIV can also be passed:
- to a fetus or baby during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding
- by sharing needles or ink to get a tattoo
- by sharing needles or jewelry to get a body piercing
- by sharing acupuncture needles
HIV cannot be passed by:
- shaking hands, working or eating with someone who has HIV
- hugs or kisses
- coughs, sneezes or spitting
- swimming pools, toilet seats or water fountains
- insects or animals
Since November 1985, all blood products in Canada are checked for HIV, to ensure that it is safe to get a blood transfusion. And there is no chance of getting HIV from donating blood.
How is HIV treated?
HIV is treated with HIV medications (also called HIV treatment, or sometimes, antiretroviral treatment, or ‘ART’). These medications have to be taken as prescribed by a doctor. They cannot get rid of HIV but they can keep it under control.
If someone is diagnosed with HIV, the sooner they start treatment, the better it is for their health.
Taking HIV treatment exactly as prescribed and maintaining a suppressed viral load (meaning that there are so few copies of HIV in a person’s blood that it cannot be detected by a blood test) also prevents HIV transmission. Someone with a suppressed (sometimes known as ‘undetectable’) viral load cannot pass HIV to another person through sex. This message is known as ‘undetectable = untransmittable’, or U=U.
Without HIV treatment, the immune system can become too weak to fight off serious illnesses, and someone with HIV can eventually become sick with life-threatening infections and cancers. This is called AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). But thanks to effective HIV treatment, these days most people with HIV never get AIDS.
This content was adapted from content originally published by CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.
HIV Basics, CATIE