What is HIV?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. When someone has HIV, the virus can weaken their immune system making it harder for their body to fight off other diseases and infections.
How is HIV Different from AIDS?
AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. When someone living with HIV becomes sick with another serious illness brought on by their weakened immune system, they will be diagnosed with AIDS. Tuberculosis, pneumonia, and lymphoma are common infections that can lead to an AIDS diagnosis in people living with HIV.
How does someone get HIV?
There are five body fluids – semen (including precum), blood, anal and vaginal secretions, and breast milk – through which HIV can be transmitted from someone living with HIV to someone who doesn’t have HIV. In order for HIV to infect someone, one of these five fluids need to be able to enter the body through broken skin or through mucous membranes like the opening of the penis, the vagina, the rectum or the foreskin. Activities like having sex without using condoms or sharing injection drug equipment can lead to HIV infection because people are exchanging these fluids where they have an opportunity to enter the body. For more information on ways to reduce your risk of contracting HIV when you’re hooking up, visit this page.
I don’t know anyone with HIV. Why do I need condoms?
Lots of people don’t think they know anyone with HIV but there’s lots of reasons why you might not know people in your life are living with HIV.
- It’s estimated that 25-35% of people living with HIV in Ontario don’t know they have it because they haven’t been tested since becoming HIV+. People often think they don’t have HIV even though they’ve hooked up with other people since their last HIV test.
- Even if someone gets tested, testing for HIV may not detect that you have it if you get tested to soon. Most HIV tests check for cells the body produces to fight HIV- called antibodies- and it can take between 2 weeks and 3 months for your body to produce enough of these cells to be detected through testing. During the first several weeks of infection- called the acute period- a person living with HIV is at their most contagious because the virus is rapidly multiplying in their body.
- People living with HIV face stigma and discrimination that can make people hesitant to tell others about their HIV status. When someone is scared they might face hostility or rejection for their status, they may try to reduce their risk of transmitting HIV without explicitly telling people they know.
- Condoms are also the best way to protect you and your partners against other STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and herpes. Other STIs can put you at a higher risk for HIV by causing sores or weakening the lining of your mucous membranes that allow HIV to enter the body, and by concentrating immune cells in the affected area where HIV can more easily infect these cells. Other STIs can also have their own long term impacts on health if left untreated.
Can I tell someone has HIV by looking at them?
No! This myth started because early anti-HIV drugs caused facial wasting and other side effects that made people look frail. Today’s HIV medications are not as toxic and allow people living with HIV to maintain their health and look well.
I found out someone I like or hooked up with has HIV. Is it safe to have sex with them?
Yes! Many HIV negative people continue to have healthy and satisfying sex lives with partners who are HIV positive. By communicating with your partner, being aware of your risks, using condoms, and getting tested regularly for HIV and other STIs, you can keep yourself healthy and continue to have a fun and fulfilling relationship. If someone you like or hooked up with tells you they’re living with HIV, remember that this can be a hard thing for them to do, and sharing their status means they care about you and your health. Visit our guide to hooking up and HIV risk for more information about how to keep you and your partner healthy.
How do I get tested for HIV and other STIs?
There are sexual health clinics across Ontario that offer free testing for HIV and other STIs. Services at clinics can be accessed if you don’t have a regular doctor or a health card. Sexual health clinics in York Region and Durham Region require that you call in advance to book an appointment for testing. To book an appointment or find out more information about testing in your area visit these pages for sexual health clinics in York Region and Durham Region. If you have a regular doctor and feel comfortable talking about your sex life with them, you can also ask your doctor to have you tested for STIs. If you see your doctor and get lab work done on a regular basis, STI tests can be added to your routine lab work. Keep in mind that your regular doctor may not be as familiar with HIV and STI testing as staff at sexual health clinics.
When should I get tested?
Sexually active people should consider getting tested every 3 to 12 months depending on their individual risk level. People who are at a higher risk for HIV because they have multiple sexual partners, don’t always use condoms, or have partners who are HIV positive or who don’t know their status should test every 3 months. People who share injection drug equipment should also get tested for HIV every 3 months. Not sure what makes sense for you? Talk to the nurse or counselor performing your HIV and STI testing and they will provide you with advice on how often it makes sense for you to get tested.
I hooked up with someone and I’m worried I got HIV.
If you had a situation that you feel may have put you at risk for HIV, you can be tested as early as 3 weeks later for HIV. Even if your early test comes back negative, you may need follow up testing to confirm your HIV status. You can talk to the nurse or counselor performing your HIV and STI testing to see whether you should come back for follow-up testing. The important thing to do is don’t panic! Sometimes people think they’re at a higher risk for HIV than they actually are. You can take a look at our guide to hooking up and HIV risk to see if the type of sex you had was really putting you at risk.
Why do I have to make an appointment to get a test?
Sexual health clinics in York Region and Durham Region ask that you make an appointment before going in to get tested to ensure that a counselor can be on hand to address any concerns you may have. Pre and Post test counseling is a normal part of the testing process to make sure you leave testing with all the information you need about your sexual health.
Why is some testing called “anonymous”?
Anonymous testing means that your name is not recorded during the testing process. Because of the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, some people are anxious about being tested. Anonymous testing offers them a way to be tested without revealing their identity. This option is generally offered at sexual health clinics. If you get tested somewhere that also provides “point-of-care” testing, it means that your results will be available in the same visit.
What’s up with the home testing kits?
While home testing kits for HIV are available in the US, they have not yet been approved for use in Canada. These testing kits use a swab of your gums to test for HIV antibodies.
What happens if I find out I have HIV? Will I get sick?
People with HIV are living longer than ever! HIV is now classified as a chronic but manageable disease. If you do find out that you have HIV, it’s important to see a doctor and begin treatment as soon as you can to stay healthy.
- Improvements in medication and treatment have enabled people to live long and healthy lives by suppressing the amount of virus in their system while restoring immune cells damaged by the virus.
- Many people feel stress, anxiety, and guilt when they find out they have HIV because there of stigma about HIV and people living with it. But HIV is a virus and no one deserves to have HIV or should feel bad about having it. Staff at organizations like the AIDS Committee of York Region (http://www.acyr.org/) and the AIDS Committee of Durham Region (http://www.aidsdurham.com/) can provide you with support and connections to other services that will help you lead a happy, healthy life.
Is there a cure for HIV?
There is not currently a cure for HIV. While you may have heard stories in the news about people who have been cured of HIV, these were experimental procedures and their long term effectiveness is unknown. There is no pharmaceutical drug or scientific procedure proven to rid the body of HIV.