The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that causes a disease called acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV attacks and destroys white blood cells, whose role is to defend the body against external threats such as infections.
People infected with HIV are called HIV-positive. At the beginning of the disease, two thirds of people don’t have symptoms. Approximately 3 to 4 weeks after contact with the virus, the other third will get symptoms similar to the flu or mononucleosis: muscle or joint pain, fatigue, fever, sore throat, headaches, and rash. These symptoms will last for 1 to 4 weeks.
Even when the symptoms go away, the disease will continue to slowly progress. In the long term, which can be many years, people can get HIV symptoms such as:
AIDS is the last stage of HIV infection. In this stage, the body's defence system has broken down so much that the person develops serious infections or certain cancers. It can take several years (5 to 7 years on average) from the initial HIV infection for someone to develop AIDS. Current treatments can slow the progression of the disease.
Anyone can get HIV. HIV is transmitted through infected blood, semen, vaginal secretions and breast milk. In most cases, HIV is contracted from:
Having a sexually transmitted infection such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis or genital herpes increases the risk of contracting HIV. Don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor to get screened and reduce the risk of transmission.
HIV tests have been done on all blood donations in Canada since 1985. Although testing can generally only detect the virus starting from the third month of infection, the risk of contracting HIV from a blood transfusion is still extremely low, and it is impossible to contract the virus by giving blood. All equipment used by Héma-Québec and the Canadian Red Cross is sterile, and each needle is used only once.
Even if they don’t have symptoms, someone who is HIV-positive can give HIV to someone else. The risk of giving it to someone else varies depending on the amount of virus in the blood (viral load): the higher the load, the greater the risk of transmission. Medication can greatly reduce the risk of transmission by reducing the viral load.
If you think you may have come into contact with HIV, go to the emergency room or see your family doctor right away. You can get medication that may prevent the virus from developing, depending on the situation and how much time has elapsed since you came into contact with the virus.
Most people will be diagnosed with HIV with a blood test within 3 months of coming into contact with the virus.
The best way to prevent HIV and AIDS is to avoid at-risk behaviour.
If you are infected with HIV, you must contact anyone with whom you’ve had unprotected sex or shared injectable drugs and let them know. These people must also get screened and treated, if necessary. This will prevent the virus from spreading to other people.
You can’t become infected by HIV: