HIV Prevention and You: A Complete Guide | SIDE by SIDE
3 Jan 2022

HIV Prevention and You: A Complete Guide

Thanks to effective HIV prevention methods, the number of new diagnoses has been steadily declining worldwide. The annual number of HIV infections is now 30% lower than it was in 2010, and 73% of people living with HIV were able to access life-saving medication to suppress their viral load

Although this is excellent news, it’s essential to know how to protect yourself and others from HIV to lower the rates even further. Everyone is at risk of contracting HIV, no matter who they are. 

Most people have a lot of questions about how HIV can be transmitted, such as:

  • How do you get HIV?
  • What is the safest way to avoid HIV transmission? 
  • Are HIV prevention methods really effective?
  • How can you lower your risk for HIV transmission?

While there are many ways to prevent HIV transmission, education is one of the best ways to stop the spread and the stigma around HIV. So, here’s what you need to know about ways to protect yourself and others from HIV transmission.

Risk Factors for HIV Transmission

First, it’s important to understand some of the basics about HIV and what it is. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. Viral cells enter the bloodstream and start to grow, which can make the host extremely sick.

Our immune system naturally reacts when unknown cells enter the body and emit white blood cells to fight the virus. The virus cells reproduce by overtaking these healthy cells and duplicating. 

Now, usually, a person won’t notice the symptoms of HIV right after transmission. The signs are quite similar to how you feel when you’ve caught a bad cold, such as fever, chills, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, and fatigue. But after several months or even years, these HIV viral cells will continue to grow until they deplete the immune system completely. 

So, how is HIV transmitted in the first place?

HIV is a virus spread through bodily fluids – most commonly blood, semen, rectal or vaginal fluids. HIV is most commonly spread through unprotected sexual intercourse or shared intravenous needles. 

According to the latest research from UNAIDS, certain behaviors can increase the risk of HIV transmission. For example, people who inject drugs and share needles with others have a 29 times higher risk of transmitting HIV than the general population. Further, female sex workers and men who have sex with other men are also at a far higher risk. 

Risk of HIV Infection Graph

Source 

 

Some of the risk factors which increase a person’s chances of HIV transmission include:

  • Having unprotected (i.e., condomless) sex with partners whose HIV status is unknown
  • Engaging in sex work
  • Sharing needles for intravenous drug injection, tattoos, or piercings

 

In less common instances, HIV is transmitted through pregnancy or breastfeeding. If the mother is HIV positive and does not take HIV medication to suppress the virus, it may spread to her child. HIV can also be transmitted through blood transfusions or by accidental needle pricking, but this is far less common.

Knowing Your Status is Where HIV Prevention Begins

The first step to protecting yourself and others from HIV transmission is knowing your status. It’s crucial to know your status and encourage all of your sexual partners to learn theirs. You can get an HIV test at most doctor’s offices, as well as many health clinics. This involves either a urine or blood test, and you should get results within a few days or weeks. The CDC recommends that people who are sexually active or in a higher risk category be tested for HIV every year. 

You can get tested for HIV at your doctor’s office, as well as many health and STD testing clinics located around the country. Testing is free and always confidential, and you can get your results back in just a few days. Some clinics offer rapid testing, with results in just 20minutes, though these may not be as accurate as other testing methods. 

Getting tested for HIV can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially your first time. But it doesn’t need to be – you should encourage your close friends and partners to be proactive about getting tested, too. Hold each other accountable for building good testing habits and knowing their status. 

Once you know your current status, you can make the decision about HIV prevention and protection for yourself. 

Ways to Protect Yourself from HIV Transmission

There are many ways to prevent HIV transmission and protect yourself. Of course, the most obvious is eliminating any risky behaviors which could increase the likelihood of transmission, like sharing intravenous needles.

Condoms also help to prevent HIV transmission from sexual intercourse, and it’s encouraged to use condoms with any partner who does not know their current HIV status. Condoms are up to 99% effective at protecting people from HIV transmission and other STDs, and are recommended for use for vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

Being proactive about your HIV and other STD statuses is extremely important. People with a pre-existing STD are more likely to contract HIV in most cases. Get tested regularly and take any prescribed medication to treat STIs and STDs. 

Another way to significantly reduce your risk of HIV transmission is taking an HIV prevention drug, known as PrEP. If you are concerned about HIV after a sexual encounter or potential exposure, a doctor may prescribe this medication as a preventative treatment known as PEP. 

In this case, the medication must be taken within 72 hours of exposure. It will prevent the virus from reproducing, thus stopping transmission. You will need a prescription for this medication, so that you can get PEP at a doctor’s office, HIV service organization, community clinics such as Minute Clinics, or the Emergency Room. 

How Does PrEP Work to Protect from HIV Transmission?

PrEP is a medication that helps prevent HIV transmission by stopping the virus from replicating within the body. This makes PrEP one of the best ways to protect yourself from HIV transmission. 

So, how does PrEP work, and is it the right fit for you?

PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, which means that it must be taken before exposure. This medication regimen stops HIV from duplicating and spreading in the body. PrEP is a prescription pill that is typically taken once a day.

Your first step will be talking to your doctor about PrEP to make sure it’s right for you. This medication may have some side effects, such as:

  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Kidney issues

However, they typically subside after a few weeks of taking the medication. 

 

How long does PrEP take to work?

PrEP can be up to 99% effective in as little as 7 days for preventing transmission through receptive anal sex when taken as directed. However, it takes a bit longer to protect against transmission through vaginal sex or intravenous needles. PrEP reaches peak protection after 21 days of continuous use. 

Can you get HIV from someone on PrEP?

PrEP is up to 99% effective at protecting from HIV transmission. This means that if you are on PrEP and are exposed to HIV (such as through unprotected sex or shared needle), the likelihood of transmission is quite low. However, get tested right away to make sure. 

How do I know if PrEP is the right choice for me?

Your decision to start  PrEP is made between you and your doctor. There are some side effects from the medication, and some PrEP meds have restrictions based on gender and age. But anyone who has used PEP before is likely a good candidate who will benefit from this HIV prevention method. 

You can do your own research to learn more about PrEP and create a list of questions or concerns to discuss with your doctor. 

Want to Learn More about How to Protect Yourself from HIV?

The fact is that protecting yourself from HIV transmission, in turn, helps to protect others. So, it is a very important matter that should be taken seriously. 

If you’d like to learn more about ways to protect yourself from HIV, like taking PrEP, please check out the resource section at SIDE BY SIDE. We can help you find HIV prevention methods and get you connected with testing centers and doctors to learn more about PrEP.  

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