Frequently Asked Questions

What is HIV/AIDS?

Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, is the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.) This virus attacks the body’s immune system and makes it difficult to fight off diseases, bacteria, virus and infections.

How do I know I have HIV/AIDS?

Many people who have HIV don’t even know it because they don’t show any symptoms for years. Even though you don’t show any symptoms, you can still pass on the virus to someone else.

Do all people with HIV have AIDS?

No. Being diagnosed with HIV does NOT mean a person will also be diagnosed with AIDS. Healthcare professionals diagnose AIDS only when people with HIV disease begin to get severe opportunistic infections (OI), or their T-cell counts fall below a certain level.

Can I get AIDS from sharing a cup or shaking hands with someone who has HIV or AIDS?

HIV is found only in body fluids, so you cannot get HIV by shaking someone’s hand or giving them a hug (or by using the same toilet or towel). While HIV is found in saliva, sharing cups or utensils has never been shown to transmit HIV.

Can HIV be transmitted through an insect bite?

No, Insects can NOT transmit HIV. Research has shown that HIV does not replicate or survive well in insects. In addition, blood-eating insects digest their food and do not inject blood from the last person they bite into the next person.

Can I get HIV from kissing?

No – you can’t get it from bug bites or public bathrooms. Actually, HIV needs pretty specific conditions to pass from one person to another. Most folks don’t realize that HIV only lives in certain body fluids – so for HIV to infect someone, they have to get infected blood or sex fluids into their bloodstream.

Body fluids that don’t transmit HIV are:

  • Saliva (“spit”)
  • Sweat or skin oils
  • Tears – Nasal mucous (“snot”)
  • Urine (“pee”) and feces (“poo”)
  • Vomit
  • Ear wax

The other thing most folks don’t know is that HIV dies outside of the body fairly quickly. It can’t survive in open-air very well, and so is usually dead once it hits the air in a matter of moments. That’s why you can’t get it from touching public surfaces – even if there are traces of blood or sex fluid. However, it can survive quite well when inside the body (like during unprotected sex) or inside vacuum-sealed environments (Iike the barrel of an injection needle).

You CAN’T get HIV from:

  • Bug bites, animal bites or scratches
  • Using public toilets, bathrooms, pools or showers
  • Going to the gym, sharing exercise equipment
  • Touching public surfaces – like doorknobs, phone booths, or public benches
  • Sharing food, drink or dishes
  • Sneezing
  • Sharing items of clothing, bed linens or towels
  • Kissing, hugging or touching
  • Masturbation
  • Sports (Note: boxing, professional-level martial arts and UFC are regulated sports with testing requirements for all athletes…)
  • Basic aesthetic services (any procedure that doesn’t cause bleeding, including basic facials, manicures, pedicures, massages, etc.)
  • Sterile body art practices like tattooing, piercing, scarification and branding (NOTE: Licensed professionals/businesses are required to adhere to strict medical-grade codes of practice and regular inspection, including the use of “Universal Precautions”, the use of new needles/sharps on each new client, and sterilization of all re-useable equipment…)
  • Professional health care, where the use of “Universal Precautions” is required with every patient (ie. gloves, new needles/scalpels/sharps, sterilization of all re-usable equipment and surfaces, etc.)

Can I get it from a mosquito bite, or public bathroom, or something like that?

No – you can’t get it from bug bites or public bathrooms. Actually, HIV needs pretty specific conditions to pass from one person to another. Most folks don’t realize that HIV only lives in certain body fluids – so for HIV to infect someone, they have to get infected blood or sex fluids into their bloodstream.

Body fluids that don’t transmit HIV are:

  • Saliva (“spit”)
  • Sweat or skin oils
  • Tears – Nasal mucous (“snot”)
  • Urine (“pee”) and feces (“poo”)
  • Vomit
  • Ear wax

The other thing most folks don’t know is that HIV dies outside of the body fairly quickly. It can’t survive in open-air very well, and so is usually dead once it hits the air in a matter of moments. That’s why you can’t get it from touching public surfaces – even if there are traces of blood or sex fluid. However, it can survive quite well when inside the body (like during unprotected sex) or inside vacuum-sealed environments (Iike the barrel of an injection needle).

You CAN’T get HIV from:

  • Bug bites, animal bites or scratches
  • Using public toilets, bathrooms, pools or showers
  • Going to the gym, sharing exercise equipment
  • Touching public surfaces – like doorknobs, phone booths, or public benches
  • Sharing food, drink or dishes
  • Sneezing
  • Sharing items of clothing, bed linens or towels
  • Kissing, hugging or touching
  • Masturbation
  • Sports (Note: boxing, professional-level martial arts and UFC are regulated sports with testing requirements for all athletes…)
  • Basic aesthetic services (any procedure that doesn’t cause bleeding, including basic facials, manicures, pedicures, massages, etc.)
  • Sterile body art practices like tattooing, piercing, scarification and branding (NOTE: Licensed professionals/businesses are required to adhere to strict medical-grade codes of practice and regular inspection, including the use of “Universal Precautions”, the use of new needles/sharps on each new client, and sterilization of all re-useable equipment…)
  • Professional health care, where the use of “Universal Precautions” is required with every patient (ie. gloves, new needles/scalpels/sharps, sterilization of all re-usable equipment and surfaces, etc.)

How does one get it?

One can get HIV through high-risk activities where you come into contact with infected blood, semen and vaginal fluids. HIV is spread:

  • By having unprotected sex (vaginal, anal or oral) with someone who has HIV.
  • By sharing needles, syringes and other drug injecting equipment that is contaminated with HIV.
  • By using tattooing and body piercing equipment – including the ink – that isn’t sterilized or properly cleaned and is infected with HIV.
  • From a woman with HIV to her baby (before or during birth) and by breastfeeding.
  • By having another Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) like chlamydia or gonorrhea. STIs can weaken your body’s natural protection and increase your chances of becoming infected with HIV if you’re exposed to the virus.

Can HIV/AIDS be prevented? How to protect yourself from getting HIV/AIDS

You can reduce your risk of becoming HIV infected by following these Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations:

·        Do not share needles or syringes with another person

·        Obtain clean needles and syringes from a pharmacy or Needle Exchange Program

·        Seek treatment for drug addiction

·        Do not have unsafe or unprotected sexual intercourse with individuals if you are not certain of their HIV negative status, or abstain from all sexual contact

·        Avoid sexual activities or practices that may injure body tissues and result in direct blood contact

·        Do not use illegal injection drugs or share injection equipment. Avoid unprotected sexual contact with people who use illegal drugs

·        Avoid unprotected or unsafe activities with multiple partners or sex industry workers

·        Avoid having sex under the influence of alcohol or drugs that may alter your ability to make safer sexual decisions

·        Use a latex condom correctly and consistently every time. When using latex condoms, always use a water soluble personal lubricant like glycerine or lubricating jellies. Never use petroleum based lubricants, hand lotions or organic oils. These products may cause the condom to break or leak

·        Do not share acupuncture, piercing or tattoo equipment. If you want to have an acupuncture, piercing or tattoo procedure done seek out a reputable licensed professional who uses proper sterilization techniques and equipment

·        Do not participate in rituals or activities that allow the physical mingling of two individuals blood such as “blood brothering”

·        Avoid all illicit drugs such as heroin, speed/met-amphetamine, cocaine and steroids. These substances can damage your immune system making you more susceptible to viral infections like HIV

·        Abstinence

Does abstinence include anal sex?

Abstinence means not engaging in any form of sexual activity where there is a risk of exchanging fluids (semen, vaginal fluids, rectal mucous). This includes anal, oral, and vaginal sex.

HIV Testing: What's involved?

A blood test is the only reliable way to determine if you are infected with the virus. Your doctor or health care provider will ensure your blood is tested specifically for HIV antibodies.

Getting accurate results depends on the time of your last possible exposure to HIV (unprotected sex, needle sharing). There is a window period, where it takes approximately 3 months for HIV antibodies to show up on an HIV test. If you have ever had a risky experience, it’s a good idea to be tested for HIV. It’s important to remember though that if you have had unprotected sex (oral, anal or vaginal) or shared needles within the last three months, the health care provider will recommend that you return for repeat testing to ensure that you have waited long enough for the test to be completely accurate.

If you have experienced a risky situation, such as sex without a condom or sharing needles, you could be infected with the virus at any time.

Can I get HIV from oral sex?

Yes, it is possible for either partner to become infected with HIV through performing or receiving oral sex. While no one knows exactly what the degree of risk is, evidence suggests that the risk is less than that of unprotected anal or vaginal sex.

Studies have shown that latex condoms are very effective, though not perfect, in preventing HIV transmission when used correctly and consistently. If either partner is allergic to latex, plastic (polyurethane) condoms for either the male or female can be used.

If your partner is female, use a latex barrier (such as a natural rubber latex sheet, a dental dam, or a cut-open condom that makes a square) between your mouth and the vagina. A latex barrier such as a dental dam reduces the risk of blood or vaginal fluids entering your mouth. Plastic food wrap also can be used as a barrier.

Can I get HIV from anal sex?

Yes. In fact, unprotected (without a condom) anal sex (intercourse) is considered to be very risky behavior. It is possible for either sex partner to become infected with HIV during anal sex.

Not having (abstaining from) sex is the most effective way to avoid HIV. If people choose to have anal sex, they should use a latex condom. Most of the time, condoms work well. However, condoms are more likely to break during anal sex than during vaginal sex. Thus, even with a condom, anal sex can be risky. A person should use generous amounts of water-based lubricant in addition to the condom to reduce the chances of the condom breaking.

What do my test results mean?

If your results come back positive (reactive):

  • You have antibodies for HIV and have the HIV infection. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you have AIDS.
  • No one knows for sure when someone infected with the HIV virus will develop AIDS.

If your results come back negative, you didn’t have the antibodies at the time of the test. However:

  • If it’s been 3 months since a high-risk activityand your test is negative, you don’t have the HIV infection.
  • If it’s been less than 3 months since being involved in a high-risk activity, you should do a repeat test.
  • Remember, if you put yourself at risk, you can be infected with the virus at any time.

What is the treatment?

There is no cure or vaccine for HIV/AIDS. There are some medications that help slow down the progression of the illness. Talk to your doctor or specialist about the treatments that will work best for you.

If I am diagnosed with HIV, can I tell when I got it?

In general, no. A skilled healthcare provider can generally estimate how long you have been infected by looking at the levels of virus in your body, your CD4 (T-cell) count, and whether or not you have had any opportunistic infections. If you are currently suffering from symptoms of acute HIV infection, a healthcare provider can usually conclude that infection occurred within the past few weeks.

How effective are latex condoms in preventing HIV?

Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing heterosexual sexual transmission of HIV. It should be noted that condom use cannot provide absolute protection against HIV. The surest way to avoid transmission of HIV is to abstain from sexual intercourse or to be in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and you know is uninfected.

Am I going to die of AIDS?

While complications from HIV infection remain a possibility, current treatments and medications are giving people with HIV a positive prognosis and near-normal life-span. This makes patients living with HIV vulnerable to the same health conditions that affect all people as they age. This is why it is important to maintain good health throughout your life.

I just tested positive after being sick with primary HIV Infection. At my last clinic visit, my provider started me on medications to keep my “viral set point” low. Are “viral load” and “viral set point” the same thing?

No. Viral load is the amount of HIV in a sample of your blood. Viral set point is the viral load that your body establishes within a few weeks or months after you are infected with HIV.

Some research suggests that if your viral set point is lowered with medications, the progression of your HIV disease may be slower and less severe, your immune function may be preserved longer, and the risk of viral mutation (which is how new strains of HIV are created) may be lowered.

I am trying to maintain a healthy diet but it’s hard to eat because I feel nauseated all the time. Is there something that I can do?

Yes! There are many medications and natural remedies for combating nausea.

Why is HIV screening recommended for all pregnant women?

If a mother is HIV-positive during pregnancy, HIV treatment can improve her overall health and can greatly lower the chance of passing HIV to her infant before, during, or after birth. The treatment is most effective when started as early as possible during pregnancy.

How long does it take for HIV to cause AIDS?

Scientists previously have estimated that about half the people with HIV will develop AIDS within 10 years after becoming infected. However, the length of time it takes for AIDS symptoms to appear varies greatly from person to person, and depends on many factors, including a person’s health status and behaviors. Also, advances in drug therapies and other medical treatments are dramatically changing the outlook for people with HIV. As with other diseases, early detection of infection allows for more options for treatment and preventive health care.

How can I tell if I’m infected with HIV? What are the symptoms?

The only way to know if you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection. You cannot rely on symptoms to know whether or not you are infected. Many people who are infected with HIV do not have any symptoms at all for many years.

What HIV screening tests are available?

In most cases the test is performed on blood drawn from a vein. The blood is checked for the presence of antibodies to HIV. Other body fluids can also be tested to screen for HIV. These include:

  • Oral Fluid Tests. These tests use oral fluid (not saliva) that is collected from the mouth using a special collection device.
  • Urine Tests. These tests use urine instead of blood.

The sensitivity and specificity (accuracy) of the oral and urine tests are less than that of the traditional blood tests.

Rapid Tests:A rapid test is a screening test that produces very quick results (approximately 20-60 minutes).

Home Testing Kits:The Home Access HIV-1 Test System can be found at most local drug stores. It is not a true home test, but a home collection kit. The testing procedure involves pricking a finger with a special device, placing drops of blood on a specially treated card, and then mailing the card in to be tested at a licensed lab.

Where can I get tested for HIV?

Many places provide testing for HIV infection. Common testing locations include local health departments, clinics, offices of private doctors, hospitals, and other sites set up specifically to provide HIV testing.

How long after a possible exposure should I wait to get tested for HIV?

It can take some time for the immune system to produce enough antibodies for the HIV test to detect. This time period can vary from person to person. Most people will develop detectable antibodies within two to eight weeks (the average is 20 days to 25 days). Even so, there is a chance that some people will take longer to develop detectable antibodies. If the initial negative HIV test was conducted within the first three months after possible exposure, repeat testing should be done at six months.

Who should consider testing?

Injection drug users including injection steroid users, particularly those who have shared injection equipment

·        Individuals who have had sexual contact with injection drug users

·        Men who have had sex with other men (gay, transgender, or bisexual males)

·        Sex and drug using partners of HIV infected persons

·        The sex partners of persons at risk for HIV

·        Children born to a women with HIV/AIDS

·        People seeking diagnosis or treatment for a sexually transmitted disease

·        People who have had sex for drugs or money

·        People who have patronized prostitutes or sex industry workers after the mid 1970’s

·        People with hemophilia who received blood products before 1986, and their sexual partners

·        Victims of a sexual assault

·        People who have had a health care exposure to blood or other body fluids known to be capable of transmitting HIV

·        Women who are pregnant.

If I test HIV positive what should I do?

If you’re sexually active, you need to tell your sexual partner(s) about the HIV infection so that they can be tested. And from now on, you HAVE to tell anyone that you’re going to have unprotected sex with about your HIV status before you have sex with them.

·        Seek regular medical evaluation and follow-up

·        Find a counseling/support group to help you with your HIV/AIDS questions;

·        Develop an ongoing and open relationship with a health care provider. Do not be afraid to ask questions

·        Never share injection equipment or personal hygiene items like razors or toothbrushes that may result in blood to blood contact with another person

·        Always practice safe sexual procedures and activities to avoid spreading the virus

·        Alwaysusing condom for vaginal, oral or anal sex.

·        DO NOT DONATE BLOOD, SEMEN (SPERM) or OTHER BODY FLUIDS or ORGANS!

How does HIV pass from one person to another?

Generally, HIV transmits through unprotected anal and vaginal sex, sharing injection drug needles, and from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. However, exactly HOW this happens is often a mystery to most folks. Luckily, there is a simple three-part equation that helps to explain the process of HIV transmission.

First, you need to have someone infected with HIV, and someone to pass it on to. Then, HIV needs three things to pass from one person to another:

1) A body fluid with lots of HIV in it:

i.            Sex fluids – semen, pre-ejaculatory fluid (“pre-cum”, the fluid secreted by the penis during sex before ejaculation), vaginal fluids, menstrual blood, and anal secretions (the fluid that is secreted by the lining of the anus).

ii.            Blood

iii.            Breast-milk (very small amounts of HIV, but enough to infect a baby)

iv.            Brain and spinal cord fluid

2) An activity that shares these fluids:

a)     Unprotected anal or vaginal sex (very rarely, oral sex can also transmit HIV)

b)    Sharing needles used for medications, drugs, tattooing or piercing, etc.

c)     From mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth and/or breastfeeding

d)    Occupational exposure (ie. usually in medical and emergency professions, through accidental cuts/pokes from used needles and scalpels, etc.)

3) A way for HIV to get into the bloodstream:

a)     Through a fresh cut, sore or puncture wound (ie. a needle poke)

b)    Through the special cells of sex membranes (the delicate skin that lines the inside of the penis, the vagina, and the anus)

c)     From mother to baby through the placenta and umbilical cord, if these organs are damaged during pregnancy or childbirth.

d)    There is at least one thing from each category happening at the same time, then there is a high risk for HIV infection.

I’m having sex. Can I avoid getting HIV?

Yes! You can still have a sex life, and avoid getting HIV – good news!

The best way to avoid HIV if you are having sex is to use condoms. Condoms are a kind of “barrier method” of contraception. Since HIV can live in an infected person’s sex fluids and blood, barrier methods work by creating a physical “barrier” between people’s sex organs, preventing contact with each other’s’ sex fluids – and any HIV that might be there. Condoms aren’t the only barrier method out there – but they are the most common.

Here’s the complete list of barrier methods people can use to have safer sex:

  • Condoms: for wearing over penises and sex toys,
  • Internal condoms: for wearing inside of vaginas and bums,
  • Dental dams: for keeping sex fluids out of someone’s mouth when they go down on a vagina or bum,
  • Gloves: to protect hands with fresh cuts or severe skin conditions from contact with sex fluids that might carry HIV, or to keep their hands from bleeding on their sex partner’s vagina / penis/bum.

Barriers should be made of a material that HIV can’t pass though – latex or polyurethane. You can check the label of the product package to make sure.

Also, for them to work they need to be used properly – they have to be put on before any sex starts, kept on the whole time during sex, and used every time people have sex. Finally, using water-based or condom-safe lubricant can help keep condoms/barriers from breaking, and make sex using barriers feel a lot better.

Can I get HIV from used needle I found on the ground?

From an accidental poke? Very unlikely. This is because HIV dies in open-air very quickly – within a few moments. So, if there was HIV on the tip of the needle, and it got poked through your skin and into your bloodstream, it’s probably already dead and unable to infect you.

From re-using the needle to inject yourself? Yes! If you were to pick up the needle and use it, then you could be at high risk for HIV. That’s because if there is any HIV inside the barrel of the needle, then it could still be alive because it’s protected from the air. So – never use abandoned needles, or needles that might have been used by someone else before you. Only use new ones that you’ve gotten from a pharmacy or needle exchange.

If you do get accidentally poked by an abandoned needle, here’s what to do:

  • Don’t panic. Chances are, you are going to be just fine.
  • Don’t squeeze the area of the poke, or try to “suck out the poison.” This won’t help, and might actually end up forcing any germs/infections further into your blood.
  • If it bleeds, let it bleed. It’s your body’s way of flushing out the wound.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, dry, and put a band-aid on the site of the poke. – Try to get to a hospital emergency room as soon as possible – preferably within the first 7 hours afterward. This will allow the healthcare team to administer the proper shots and medications to ward off skin infections, hepatitis viruses, tetanus, etc
  • Depending on the situation, they may also offer you some medications to help guard against any live HIV that might have been in the needle.

I’m using needles to inject drugs/substances. Can I still avoid getting HIV?

Yes! You can use injection needles and still avoid getting HIV. The risk for HIV comes from sharing needles – not using needles. This is because when someone shares a needle, there’s always blood there from the last person that used it. If the last person who used the needle has HIV, then everyone who uses it next will be exposed to HIV, too.

Needles can be used for a lot of things – not just illegal drugs. Needles or blades that go through the skin or are in contact with blood for any reason should never be shared, including:

  • Needles for medication (ie. insulin injections, etc.)
  • Needles for injection of illegal drugs (ie. heroin, crack, etc.)
  • Steroid needles
  • Body art equipment: tattooing and piercing needles, scarification tools, branding tools.
  • Acupuncture needles
  • Surgery equipment (ie. scalpels, clamps, etc.)

Flushing out the inside of a needle with water or bleach is not guaranteed to get rid of any HIV that might be there. Neither is boiling a needle or exposing it to an open flame. This is because the inside of a needle can protect HIV from open air (where it would die within moments). So, it’s best and easiest to just use a new needle every time you inject anything. New needles can be found at a variety of places, including needle exchanges, some public health clinics and some pharmacies.

So, never share any of the needles you use to give yourself a substance, and – just to be safe – never use anybody else’s injection equipment, either. This includes ties, water, spoons, cotton/alcohol swabs, and anything else that could have traces of blood on it.

I’ve heard there’s treatment for HIV…is that true? How well does it work?

Yes, there is treatment. In fact, the treatment can make it possible for someone to live with HIV, but avoid getting sick with AIDS. The best option is to take anti-HIV medications, also known as “Anti-retroviral Therapy”.

These medications don’t get rid of HIV, but are more like “birth control pills” for the virus. They do two main things:

1)    The drugs help to prevent HIV from multiplying, and

2)    This helps the immune system “catch up” by killing off infected cells and letting new immune cells survive.

This helps the immune system to “rebuild” itself. When taken properly – every day, as prescribed – Anti-Retroviral Therapy can help the immune system stay strong and able to control HIV.

When HIV is under control, there are lots of extra healthy immune cells to fight other infections before they become serious – thus helping to prevent the AIDS stage.

Are there other options to treat HIV/AIDS besides medications?

Yes. Research has shown that there are lots of things that can help improve the health and wellness of people living with HIV. Because the immune system and our bodies respond to good care, simple, everyday things like regular physical activity, balanced nutrition, lots of clean water, good housing and adequate rest/sleep can make a big difference to the health of someone living with HIV.

As well, the immune system is particularly sensitive to stress, so things like seeing a regular counselor, having someone trusted to talk to, being in healthy relationships, and having things to do that make you feel good about yourself are key to a healthy mind and heart when living with HIV.

Finally, there are plenty of other health care practices besides medication that have been shown to help with both physical and emotional wellness – such as acupuncture, sweat lodge and smudging, spiritually-grounding practices such as meditation, prayer and singing/dancing, and homeopathic medicine have all been shown to help people living with HIV get stronger and healthier.

I just found out a loved one has HIV. Are there any special precautions I need to take to protect myself?

No. As long as you aren’t having unprotected sex with them, or sharing needles, you are not at risk for getting HIV from them through casual contact (hugging, kissing, sharing dishes, sharing bathrooms, etc.). And don’t worry about sterilizing anything. Standard cleaning practices will work just fine, since HIV dies outside in open air very quickly anyway.

The things you need to clean away after that are the same germs that you would clean away for any visitor or loved one. If you are having sex or sharing needles with your loved one who has HIV, then it would be good to get tested for HIV. Also, if you haven’t already, start using protection every time you have sex and new needles for your own injections.