HIV/AIDS

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a viral infection that attacks the natural defenses of the body, the immune cells. Once a person is infected with HIV, they are at risk for developing AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) which is a disease marked by serious deficiency in the body's ability to fight off other infections.

HIV/AIDS is deadly because the virus destroys its victim's immune cells, leaving the infected person unable to heal naturally and vulnerable to bacteria, fungal infections, other viruses, and some cancers.

Transmission: 

HIV/AIDS was first seen among the gay male population in the United States and is still sometimes thought of as a disease limited to certain groups or demographics. Although it is true that statistically, some groups are more likely to be infected, it is the practices that you engage in that put you at risk for contracting HIV, rather than the person you are. In 2007, 53% of people diagnosed with HIV were men who had sex with other men. 32% of new diagnoses were among people who engaged in heterosexual sex. In 2007, the largest proportion of new diagnoses were among people aged 40-49.

HIV is spread through contact with certain bodily fluids, including blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk. The virus cannot survive very long outside the human body, making it impossible to contract HIV from surfaces like toilet seats or doorknobs.

The body's natural defenses block the virus from entering through healthy, unbroken skin and also through the mouth (as long as the gums are not cut or inflamed). For HIV to be transmitted, infected bodily fluid must come into contact with a vulnerable area on the body, which can include the genital tract, anus and rectum, and cuts or breaks in the skin.

Anal sex is a very efficient way to transmit HIV. The anus and rectum are not designed for intercourse and often develop small tears as a result of anal sex, making this tissue very vulnerable to infection with the virus. This is the reason that gay men (who have anal sex) have a higher incidence of infection with the virus; however a woman who has anal sex with an infected man can contract HIV just as easily.

HIV can also be transmitted during vaginal sex with an infected person. Women are more likely to contract HIV during vaginal sex with an infected man than vice versa, however both men and women are at risk for contracting HIV if they have vaginal sex with someone who is infected.

Oral sex can transmit HIV although it is very rare for this to happen.

HIV is also transmitted through non-sexual contact, including IV drug use (sharing needles or paraphernalia), from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding, and in medical situations such as an accidental stick with a needle used on an infected person.

Prevention: 

The only way to protect yourself completely from contracting HIV is to abstain from sex or to engage in sex with a mutually monogamous partner who has been tested and shown to be free from the virus.

If you are sexually active and are not sure of your partner's HIV status, you can reduce your risk by engaging in only low-risk activities, including kissing, touching, and mutual masturbation. Oral sex is also less likely to transmit HIV, although it is still possible to pass the virus this way.

If you have vaginal or anal sex, using a latex condom can reduce the risk of transmission. It is important to know how to use a latex condom correctly (read the directions!), and to use one each and every time you have sex.

The highest risk activities for HIV transmission are unprotected anal sex and IV drug use (sharing needles). Avoiding these activities, and avoiding sexual contact with people who engage in these activities, can reduce your risk of contracting HIV.

Symptoms: 

HIV does not typically show symptoms in people who have just been infected, although some people may experience mild flu-like symptoms.

HIV infection progresses over months and years, and if untreated will eventually result in a severely compromised immune system. This immune deficiency leaves the body vulnerable to other, opportunistic infections, including bacterial, fungal, and viral infections, as well as some types of cancer. Symptoms of advanced HIV infection and/or AIDS depend on the opportunistic infections that have resulted from the immune deficiency.

Diagnosis: 

HIV infection can be diagnosed by a blood test, either in a medical office or through a home testing service (the only one currently approved by the FDA is Home Access, found at many drugstores or at http://www.homeaccess.com). HIV testing sites can be found with the resources at http://www.hivtest.org.

A positive test result for HIV indicates infection with the virus but does not necessarily mean that a person has AIDS. AIDS is considered a later stage of the disease, marked by significant changes in the immune system, and can only be diagnosed by examination and laboratory testing from a physician.

Treatment: 

There is no cure for HIV or AIDS, however advances in treatment have allowed many individuals infected with HIV to live for decades. Treatment must be managed by a health care professional and can include antiviral medications and therapies to build the immune system.

For More Information: 

The CDC STD fact sheets are a good source of current, accurate information about HIV/AIDS, as well as the American Social Health Association.

Disclaimer: 
This information is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for medical advice. If you have any symptoms that you suspect may indicate an STD or other infection, please consult a doctor or medical professional. A good resource for STD testing, treatment and family planning services is http://www.plannedparenthood.org.
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