HIV and AIDS
Across the globe, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is an epidemic. More than 36.6 million people are currently living with HIV and every day more than 5,000 people contract the virus. That’s about 240 new HIV infections every hour. Unfortunately, many people living with HIV don’t know they have the infection, which is why education and testing are so important in stopping the spread of this deadly disease.
Many people feel uncomfortable talking about HIV and AIDS, but it’s important to know the basics, understand how to protect yourself and teach future generations about the importance of safe sex.
What’s the Difference Between HIV and AIDS?
The terms HIV and AIDS are frequently used together and interchangeably, but they are very different conditions. HIV attacks the immune system and prevents it from working as efficiently as it should. Usually, the body is able to fight off and eliminate viruses. However, the story is different with HIV – your body is unable to clear it.
The good news is that medications and treatment have dramatically improved the life expectancy of people who are HIV positive. Many patients are now reaching old age.
AIDS develops when HIV has caused serious damage to the immune system. People living with AIDS can’t fight infections as well as healthy people, which puts them at greater risk for health problems such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and certain types of cancer.
How HIV Spreads (and How It Doesn’t)
HIV is not spread easily and there are only certain activities that will put you at risk for infection. Most commonly, HIV infections occur through unprotected sex with an infected partner, or through sharing a syringe or needle with someone who is HIV positive.
In order to be infected, your mucous membranes – found inside the penis, rectum, vagina or mouth – must come in contact with bodily fluids that carry the virus. These body fluids include blood, semen, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids and breast milk.
There are many things that do not cause HIV to spread that many people mistakenly worry about. These no-risk activities include:
- Bites from mosquitos or insects
- Shaking hands and hugging
- Using the bathroom, sharing a glass and using a drinking fountain
- Sexual activities that do not involve the exchange of bodily fluids, such as touching and kissing
How to Reduce Your Risk for HIV Infection
There are many things you can do to reduce your risk for HIV infection. Not having sex and not sharing needles nearly eliminates your risk. However, if you are sexually active, here is how to improve your safety:
- Always use a condom when having sex: Used consistently and correctly, condoms will greatly reduce your risk for infection.
- Reduce the number of people you have sex with: The more partners you have, the greater your chance of having sex with someone who is HIV-positive or has another sexually transmitted disease.
- Choose less risky sexual activities: Anal sex is the riskiest sexual activity related to HIV infections, followed by vaginal sex.
- Talk to your doctor about PreP and PEP: If you are at higher risk, talk to your doctor about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a medication that can help you reduce your risk for infection before exposure; and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), medication that can reduce your risk if you think you’ve been exposed to HIV.
And finally, your best line of defense is to know your status. Make sure that you and your sexual partners are tested regularly for HIV infection.