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HIV Risks & Prevention

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How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is most commonly transmitted through unprotected vaginal or anal sex or shared drug injection equipment. HIV is only transmitted through bodily fluids like blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluid and/or vaginal fluid. These fluids have to come in contact with a mucous membrane, damaged tissue or be directly injected into the bloodstream for transmission to occur. Involvement in high-risk behavior, like drug use and unprotected sex, can significantly increase your chances of spreading or transmitting HIV. HIV can also be transmitted from a mother to child during childbirth (called perinatal HIV) or through breastfeeding.

Is HIV transmitted through tattoos or body piercings?

Tattoos and body piercings involve the use of needles that can potentially put you at risk for HIV transmission, but no instances of this occurring have been documented. Nonetheless, make sure that only new needles and other tattoo or body piercing supplies are used.

Ways HIV cannot be spread

You cannot get HIV through typical day-to-day contact or normal everyday activities because HIV does not live long outside the body. Kissing, shaking hands and hugging are all casual contacts that do not involve potential HIV transmission of infected fluids (blood, semen, pre-seminal, rectal or vaginal fluids). Objects like toilet seats, drinking fountains, door knobs, eating utensils, drinking glasses, food, cigarettes, pets, and insects (including mosquitoes) do NOT carry the HIV virus. HIV is not spread through the air or saliva, so talking or casually interacting with someone with HIV does not put you at risk of contracting the virus.

Health effects of HIV

HIV negatively impacts your health by weakening and destroying certain immune cells. Although antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV is available, the virus makes individuals who have it vulnerable to other diseases and illnesses. These opportunistic infections include:

  • Fungal infections
  • Bacterial pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • Herpes
  • Hepatitis
  • Liver disease
  • Meningitis
  • Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  • Other infections, cancers and complications

Failure to seek HIV treatment reduces and weakens the immune system defenders called CD4+ cells. This causes the level of the HIV virus in your blood (viral load) to increase significantly, complicating your health.

How to reduce your risk of contracting HIV

The best method to reduce your risk of getting HIV is to abstain from sexual activity and be drug-free. Safer sex practices include using a latex or polurethane condom consistently and properly when engaging in sexual activities like vaginal and anal sex. Having sexual intercourse with an uninfected partner and staying in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship can also reduce your risk of contracting HIV.

Engaging in multiple sexual relationships increases your risk of encountering someone infected with HIV or other STDs. Always know your HIV status and that of your partner and never share contaminated or already used needles or syringes. Getting tested at least annually significantly increases your chances of diagnosing an HIV status, allowing you to get the necessary treatment if positive and help stop the spread of the virus.

If you are in a relationship with a partner who has HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is essential to helping you not contract the virus. Your partner needs to be adamantly following antiretroviral therapy (ART).

Who is at risk of contracting HIV?

Since the most common methods of HIV transmission are through anal or vaginal sex, and sharing drug injection equipment, people who engage in these activities are at risk of contracting HIV. Also, substance abusers are at risk for contracting HIV because drugs and alcohol can reduce a person's ability to reason, making them more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as unprotected sexual intercourse.

HIV does not discriminate, however studies have shown that social, economic and demographic factors affect the rate of HIV transmission in the U.S. Those who live in communities with higher rates of HIV incidence have higher chances of encountering an HIV-positive partner, making them more vulnerable to contracting the virus.

According to a CDC report from 2012, homosexual, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) account for the majority of new HIV infections (62%), despite the fact that they make up less than 2% of the general population. This population has a higher risk of contracting HIV due to the high prevalence of HIV transmission through semen and anal sex.

Do condoms protect against HIV?

Latex or polyurethane condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are proven to be highly effective in preventing the transmission of HIV. Their use has been scientifically established through laboratory studies on uninfected persons involved in sexual relationships with HIV-positive partners. Although studies have proven that consistent use of latex or polyurethane condoms provides a high degree of protection against HIV, they cannot guarantee absolute protection.