Think you may have been exposed to HIV? Here’s what you need to know.
What is human immunodeficiency virus?
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the immune system, your body’s natural defenses against disease. The virus and the infection it causes are both called HIV. If you have HIV and do not receive treatment, the infection can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Being infected with HIV does not mean you have AIDS. If you receive treatment for HIV, the damage to your immune system can be slowed down or stopped and you might not develop AIDS. With treatment, many guys with HIV live long and active lives.
How is HIV spread?
- HIV is passed in blood or semen. In order to get infected, blood or semen from an infected guy has to get into the bloodstream.
- Many new HIV infections occur during unprotected anal sex through small tears inside the anus or on the penis.
- HIV can also be spread while sharing needles when injecting drugs.
- HIV doesn’t survive for very long outside the body and isn’t spread by casual contact.
How do I know if I have HIV?
- Many guys who have been infected with HIV report flu-like symptoms: nausea, vomiting, night sweats, swollen glands, fever, skin rashes. These may occur about ten to 14 days after being infected, lasting for one or two weeks. This is known as sero-conversion illness.
- Not all guys experience sero-conversion illness (and since it resembles the flu, it can sometimes be misdiagnosed).
- During the first few months of infection, the HIV virus is rapidly reproducing, making the newly infected individual much more likely to pass on the virus. This phase of the virus is called acute HIV infection.
- After the first few months of HIV infection, viral load decreases naturally. When the viral load is lower, the infected person may not feel ill, although he still has HIV and can pass on the virus to other guys.
- Many guys take HIV medications to slow down the virus. If medication is taken properly, it is possible to attain an “undetectable” viral load. This means that the amount of HIV in the blood and semen is very low, making it less likely to pass the virus to others.
How do I test for HIV?
- A number of HIV testing options are available, depending on where you live. For a list of testing options click here and to find a place to get tested, click here.
What do I do if I have HIV?
- For some guys, being told that they’ve contracted HIV can be devastating news. It is important to get all the facts. Speak to a trained counsellor, a trustworthy friend, or another guy who is HIV positive. It’s also good to have a family doctor who has experience with gay guys and HIV.
- After being infected with HIV, it’s important to have regular blood tests to track immune system health. The viral load test measures the amount of HIV in the blood; the CD4 test measures the health of immune cells. When the CD4 count gets low, it means that the immune system is impaired and may need treatment.
- In this case, doctors often prescribe a cocktail of medicines called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), sometimes called antiretrovirals or ARVs. ARVs reduce the amount of virus in the body, which makes it less likely to transmit the virus to others. The goal is to have a healthy CD4 count with an undetectable viral load.
- ARVs do not provide a cure for HIV. Guys taking ARVs can still pass the virus to others, even with an undetectable viral load. Some studies have shown that HIV can still be present in the semen of guys who have an undetectable viral load in their blood.
- The decision about whether to take ARVs is based on many factors. Guys should talk to their doctor about their options.
- A healthy lifestyle and reduced exposure to other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) will keep the immune system stronger for longer.
How do I protect myself?
- Regular use of condoms will greatly reduce the chances of getting HIV and other STIs. Having other STIs or being with a guy who has other STIs increases the chances of picking up HIV.
- HIV is often passed along by guys who don’t know they are infected.
- Limiting the number of different guys you have sex with will also reduce your risk. If you have sex with lots of partners, get tested regularly.
- If you have had unprotected anal sex with a guy whose HIV status is unknown, or with someone you know to be HIV positive, you may want to consider seeing a doctor or nurse as soon as possible. Taking HIV medications for one month following an exposure may help prevent an infection. This is called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) and it needs to be started within 3 days of the incident (the sooner the better).
- Don’t share needles when using drugs.
- If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV, get tested as soon as possible.