November 23, 2021

HIV 101

Everyone can contract HIV, even you.  Many people are not aware of how the HIV virus is shared, so they don’t know how to protect themselves. The best way to protect yourself from HIV infection is by learning about HIV transmission. Let’s break down the basics.

Ways HIV can be shared

There are a number of ways HIV can be shared, but they are ALL bodily fluids:

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Pre-cum
  • Rectal fluids
  • Vaginal fluids
  • Breast milk

Here are a few scenarios where HIV could be transmitted:

  • Having condomless vaginal or anal sex with someone who has HIV when you are not using PrEP and the person with HIV is not virally suppressed.
  • Sharing injection equipment with someone who has HIV, while not using PrEP.
  • Mother-to-child transmission of HIV is possible if the mother is not currently engaged in care and HIV treatment.
  • Being stuck or cut with a sharp object that contains HIV-positive blood.
  • On very rare occasions, transmission can occur during a blood transfusion.

It comes down to this: to contract HIV, you need to come into contact with the bodily fluids of someone living with HIV who isn’t virally suppressed.

Ways HIV cannot be shared

HIV is not transmitted through saliva, urine, feces, vomit, sweat, animals, bugs, or the air. You cannot contract HIV through casual contact with someone living with HIV.

This means that you can interact with people living with HIV the same way you would anyone else. You have no risk of contracting the virus if you are around someone living with HIV when they:

  • Sneeze or cough
  • Touch, hug or kiss you
  • Cook or handle your food
  • Share toilets and other items
  • Share eating utensils or glasses

The most common way HIV is shared

The most common way that HIV is passed from person to person is through sex. Sex allows for the exchange of certain body fluids that carry HIV: blood, semen, rectal and vaginal secretions.

Who should get tested?

Everyone should be tested for HIV annually. It is very important if you are sexually active or have shared injection equipment at any point in your life to get tested routinely. Testing is free and confidential, even if you don’t have health insurance. Your primary care doctor can test you during your next routine visit, you can purchase a home testing kit at a pharmacy like Walgreens or CVS, or you can make an appointment with a testing center close to you using our resource finder tool.

How often should I get tested?

Everyone should be tested for HIV at least once per year, but some people should be tested more often. Here are some examples of when you should consider being tested more than once per year:

  • Before you start having sex with someone new
  • If you or your partners are having sex with other people
  • If you don’t always use a condom
  • If you have had condoms break during sex
  • If you are transgender
  • If you are a male who has sex with other men
  • If you trade sex for money or other necessities
  • If your sexual partner is living with HIV
  • If you have had another STD in the last year
  • If you inject drugs
  • If you have sex while intoxicated
  • If you have had sex with someone who would answer yes to one of the scenarios above

If one or more of those scenarios apply to you, you should consider getting an HIV test every 3-4 months.

What if I can’t afford a test?

Many community clinics and HIV services organizations offer free HIV testing. If you have health insurance, your insurance plan will cover the cost of your HIV test.

How does HIV testing work?

Testing can either involve an oral swab or a blood test, depending on where you are tested. If you are using an oral or finger-prick test, you will receive results in a matter of minutes.  For your blood test, you will need to wait up to two weeks to get the results. Most HIV testing clinics offer rapid testing options.

How long does it take for HIV to show up on a test?

Just like any other virus, it can take a while for the virus to spread throughout the body and become strong enough to show up on a test. It can take up to three months before a test can pick up an HIV infection. This is why it can be important for you to be tested more than once per year, depending on your habits.

How do I prevent HIV?

The best ways to protect yourself from HIV are knowing your status, reducing your risk, and using protection like condoms or dental dams. You can also consider using PrEP, an HIV prevention medication, to reduce your risk of getting HIV by 90% or more. PrEP could be a good option if you:

  • Don’t consistently use condoms
  • Have sex with multiple partners
  • Do not know the HIV status of your sexual partners
  • Are having sex with someone who is HIV-positive
  • Have had another STD in the last six months
  • Are a man who has sex with other men
  • Share injection equipment

PrEP can be prescribed at little or no cost to you from your primary care doctor or an HIV service organization. To learn more, click here.

What if I think someone shared HIV with me?

If you believe that someone may have shared HIV with you in the last 72 hours, you can use PEP, an HIV prevention medication, to reduce the chance that the HIV virus will spread in your body.  You should see your doctor, an HIV services organization, or an emergency department to get PEP. They will ask you about the situation, make sure you are HIV negative at the time of ingestion, and monitor you for side effects. If all goes well, they will prescribe you a one-month course of medication that should help reduce your risk of getting HIV.

If you find yourself in this situation, you should consider using PrEP to prevent HIV transmission in the future.

What happens if I test positive?

Take a deep breath – everything is going to be alright. It’s important that you find a healthcare provider or an HIV services organization that can provide emotional support and healthcare for you. Your doctor will want to monitor your health closely to make sure you don’t have any other infections, such as Hepatitis C. In most cases, your doctor will start you on medications to treat the virus before it starts damaging your immune system.

By working closely with your healthcare provider, you can reach an undetectable status quickly. This means that the virus is under control, and you aren’t able to share the virus with others. This also ensures that you are able to live a long and healthy life, just like people who are HIV-negative.

If you need help finding an HIV Care provider near you, you can use our resource finder tool.



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