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Sexual Health

HIV Infection and AIDS

Prevention - When to Call a Health Professional

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is spread when blood, semen, or vaginal fluids from an infected person enter someone else's body. Once a person becomes infected, the virus attacks and gradually weakens his or her immune system. AIDS is the last phase in HIV disease, when the body is no longer able to fight infection or disease. Without treatment, AIDS develops in most people 12 to 13 years after they first become infected with HIV. With treatment, AIDS may be delayed for many more years.

A person is said to be HIV-positive if antibodies to the virus are detected in his or her blood. It may take up to

6 months after infection for the antibodies to appear. However, the virus can be spread to others before antibodies or symptoms are apparent.

The specific behaviours that spread HIV include:

  • Having more than 1 sex partner.

  • Having unprotected sex, especially unprotected sex between men (other than in a relationship in which both sex partners have sex only with each other, and neither partner is infected with HIV).

  • Sharing needles, syringes, or other "drug works" with someone who is HIV-positive.

Babies born to or breast-fed by women who are HIV-positive are also at high risk for becoming infected with the virus.Because all donated blood has been tested for HIV since 1985, the risk of getting the virus from transfused blood or blood products is extremely low.

HIV is not spread by mosquitoes; toilet seats; being coughed on by an infected person; casual contact with someone who is HIV-positive or who has AIDS; or by donating blood. Being touched, hugged, or lightly kissed by someone who is HIV- positive will not transfer the virus to you.

A simple, confidential blood test can determine if you are HIV-positive. You can have the test done in your doctor's office or at your local health

unit or public health office. A home test kit is available as well. If you engage in activities that put you at risk for HIV infection, have an HIV test every 6 months. Early diagnosis and treatment of HIV are important even before symptoms develop. If you think you have been exposed to HIV, but you test negative, you should be tested again 6 months after your last known exposure to HIV.

If you are pregnant and have any reason to believe that you may ever have been exposed to HIV, getting tested is the most important thing you can do for your baby. If you are HIV-positive, drug treatment during pregnancy can greatly reduce the likelihood that you will pass the infection on to your baby.

People who educate themselves about HIV infection learn how to make wise health decisions about preventing the spread of the virus and seek treatments that may improve their chances for staying healthy longer.


Symptoms of HIV Infection

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Early symptoms of HIV infection may mimic flu and can also include a rash and swollen glands. Common symptoms of later-stage HIV infection include:

  • Rapid, unexplained weight loss.

  • Unexplained fever and night sweats.

  • Severe fatigue.

  • Diarrhea or other bowel changes.

  • Shortness of breath and a persistent dry cough.

  • Mouth sores.

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, or groin.

These symptoms can be caused by many illnesses other than HIV infection. However, if any symptom develops or persists without a good explanation, especially if your behaviour puts you at risk for HIV infection, call your doctor.


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Only monogamy (you and your partner have sex only with each other) between uninfected partners or sexual abstinence completely eliminates the risk of HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases. The following safer sex guidelines will help you reduce your risk.

  • If you are beginning a new sexual relationship:

    • Take time before having sex to talk about HIV and other STDs. Find out if your partner has ever been exposed to or infected with an STD or if your partner's behaviour puts him or her at risk for HIV infection. Tell your partner if you've ever engaged in high-risk behaviour. Remember that it is possible to be infected with an STD without knowing it.

    • Use latex condoms and spermicide every time you have sex (vaginal, anal, or oral) until you are certain that neither you nor your partner has any STDs and that neither of you will have unprotected sexual contact with anyone else while your relationship lasts.

    • If you plan to use HIV testing to decide whether it is safe to have unprotected sex, have the test done 6 months after the last time you engaged in high-risk behaviour. In the meantime, use condoms every time you have sexual contact.

  • Avoid unprotected sexual contact with anyone who has symptoms of or who has been exposed to an STD, or whose behaviour puts him or her at risk for HIV infection. Keep in mind that a person may still be able to transmit STDs even if no symptoms are present.

  • Avoid unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex with anyone whose sexual history may not be risk-free. Use latex condoms from the beginning to the end of sexual contact. "Natural" or lambskin condoms do not protect against HIV infection or other STDs.

  • Do not rely on spermicides or a diaphragm alone to protect against STDs. Latex condoms with spermicide provide the best protection against STDs, including HIV.

In addition to the guidelines above, taking the following precautions will reduce your risk of getting HIV and hepatitis B:

If your job or behaviour puts you at risk for HIV infection, or if you come in contact with HIV-infected blood (for example, an accidental needle stick), contact a health professional immediately. In some cases, medications may prevent HIV infection if they are started within a few hours after you are exposed to the virus. Have a blood test 6 months after any activity or accident that puts you at risk for HIV infection.

For more information, call your local health unit or public health office, or check your phone book for the AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases Testing and Information toll-free number.

When to Call a Health Professional

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