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HIV Facts: What You Need to Know

What Is HIV?

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks your immune system, making you much more susceptible to infections and certain kinds of cancer. HIV can be treated with anti-viral medications and controlled, but currently there’s no cure.

Learn about the risks associated with HIV and how to protect yourself from this potentially fatal virus.

What Are the Statistics?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than a million adolescents and adults living in the United States are infected with HIV. Of this number, an estimated 18 percent aren’t aware of their infection and haven’t received a diagnosis.

People of all races, ages and sexual orientation can become infected with HIV, although the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) states that gay and bisexual men across all races and ethnicities are most affected by the virus.

Am I at Risk?

The most prevalent risk factor for HIV is having unprotected sex with someone who is infected with the virus (HIV positive). HIV can be spread through all types of sex, including vaginal, anal, and oral. However, transmission through anal sex is more common than with vaginal or oral sex.

You’re also at risk for becoming HIV positive if you use intravenous drugs, or have other sexually transmitted diseases that present through open sores.

Men who aren’t circumcised have a higher risk of being infected with HIV by female partners, according to the journal mBio.

How Is HIV Transmitted?

HIV is transmitted through some types of bodily fluids, including:

  • blood
  • semen
  • vaginal and rectal secretions
  • breast milk

All of these fluids may have high concentrations of viral load. Others, such as amniotic and spinal cord fluid, may have the ability to transmit HIV to healthcare workers who are exposed to them, according to the CDC.

Saliva, urine, tears, feces, and vomit do not transmit HIV unless they’re also mixed with infected blood. Sharing IV drug needles that could be contaminated with infected blood can transmit HIV.

An infected pregnant mother can give HIV to her unborn child through the placenta or exposure of the child’s mucous membranes to the virus during birth.

Exposure to infected blood products through a transfusion is possible. However, the United States has stringent mechanisms in place to prevent contaminated blood from entering blood banks. Transmission through blood transfusion is now an extremely rare occurrence.

Practice Safe Sex to Prevent HIV

Practicing safe sex plays a major role in protecting yourself against HIV. Use a condom during vaginal, anal and even oral sex—every time—to reduce your risk. Keep the lines of communication open about and during intimacy. Talk to your partner about your and their HIV status to stay informed and aware.

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation explains that being too shy to talk about sex and HIV, or assuming you can tell if a person is HIV positive just by looking are high-risk behaviors.

Protect Yourself from HIV

Sex is not the only way to become infected with HIV, and therefore is not the only way to protect yourself from the virus. Avoid sharing needles for IV. Use a clean needle, or better yet, get help to quit.

If you’re an expectant mom with HIV, seek medical care as soon as you realize you’re pregnant to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to your child.

Male circumcision has been found to reduce the risk of HIV, according to research published in mBio. If you weren’t circumcised as an infant and fall into a high-risk group, having it done as an adult might lessen your risk.

What Is the Outlook for HIV-Positive People?

Decades ago, HIV was a death sentence. People weren’t aware of the risk factors, and there was no treatment. With the advent of anti-viral medications, people can live longer, better lives with HIV. The earlier treatment is administered, the better.

A joint study by Harvard University’s Immune Disease Institute and Children’s Hospital Boston showed that patients infected with HIV and tuberculosis (TB) had increased their survival rate by 33 percent when treatment began within two weeks of HIV diagnosis.

Studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association report that the five-year survival rate for HIV-positive patients in treatment is approaching the same rate as the uninfected population.

Prevention Is Your Best Weapon

Education, protection and communication are keys to protecting yourself and your loved ones from HIV. Although medical advances have progressed exponentially since the discovery of HIV and AIDS, the virus is still a serious health threat and should be prevented at all costs.

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