HIV/AIDS

WHAT IS IT?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This virus attacks the body’s immune system, which weakens the body’s ability to fight off other infections and illnesses.

AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. HIV develops into AIDS when the immune system can no longer defend the body from infections, diseases, and/or cancers.

For more information about HIV and AIDS, please visit www.acns.ns.ca

HOW WOULD I GET IT?

HIV is passed when the body fluids of an infected person (blood, semen, pre-semen, vaginal secretions, breast milk) enter the blood stream of another individual. Examples of ways that someone could become infected with HIV include the following:

  • having vaginal or anal sex with someone who has HIV without using a condom
  • having oral sex with someone who has HIV without using a condom or an oral dam
  • sharing sex toys that have not been cleaned properly with someone who has HIV
  • taking part in any other activities that include contact with infected blood, semen (including pre-cum), or vaginal fluid
  • sharing needles or other drug equipment such as water, cookers, or crack pipes
  • sharing needles or ink to get a tattoo
  • sharing needles or jewelry to get a body piercing
  • sharing acupuncture needles
  • using household items such as toothbrushes and razors that have touched infected blood
  • transmission from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding

HIV cannot be passed on through mosquito bites, and it cannot be transmitted through saliva, sweat, tears, urine, or feces of infected individuals, unless blood is present.

Since November 1985, all blood products in Canada are checked for HIV. Your risk of becoming infected with HIV through a blood transfusion is extremely low.

Someone cannot become infected with AIDS. A person must have HIV first, which may later develop into AIDS. In other words, AIDS is a condition that can be caused by HIV.

HOW WOULD I KNOW I HAD IT?

Some infected individuals may develop mild flu-like symptoms 2 to 4 weeks after exposure. These symptoms may last a few weeks and then disappear.

Most people who are infected with HIV will not develop symptoms until years after exposure. These symptoms may include the following:

  • frequent fevers or sweats
  • joint or muscle pain
  • persistent skin rashes
  • swollen glands
  • sore throat
  • fatigue or lack of energy
  • headaches
  • rapid, unexplained weight loss
  • nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

There is a blood test available that can tell you if you are infected with HIV. This test measures HIV antibodies – not the actual virus. It may take up to 3.5 months for an infection to become detectable. For this reason, we recommend that a person waits 12 weeks after potential exposure to get the blood test. Anyone who is at high risk and tests negative initially should retest 3 months later for increased accuracy. For more information about this test, please visit the STI Testing section of our website.

CAN IT BE TREATED AND CURED?

HIV cannot be cured, but it can be managed so that the virus grows more slowly and doesn't damage the immune system as quickly. There are now many drugs to treat HIV infection and help someone who is HIV-positive to maintain their health. These drugs are called anti-retroviral and protease inhibitors. A combination of these drugs is referred to as a drug cocktail. Many people also get an antibiotic, which will prevent pneumonia.

Individuals infected with HIV should also try to make healthy lifestyle choices to help strengthen their immune system. This may include eating healthy foods, minimizing stress, not smoking cigarettes, not drinking too much alcohol and not using illegal drugs (e.g. cocaine).

IF IT ISN’T TREATED, CAN IT LEAD TO MORE SERIOUS PROBLEMS?

Yes. When HIV does too much damage to the immune system, it develops into AIDS. A person who has AIDS will start developing illness that are very hard to get rid of such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and cancer. If the illnesses become too severe, it may result in death.