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Answers about HIV

What is HIV?

HIV is an illness that attacks the immune system causing people to get sick from other diseases. HIV is usually spread through sex with an infected person or by sharing needles for drugs like heroin. HIV is not curable yet, but it IS manageable if it is caught early enough. Which is why it’s important to get tested regularly.

What is the latest on treatment?

Medications used to treat HIV infection (antiretroviral drugs) help many people with HIV to lower the levels of virus in their blood (viral load) to undetectable levels. The best treatment with these medications (antiretroviral therapy, or ART) may lower the chance that an infected person will pass HIV to others through sex. However, the risk of spreading infection is still not zero, which means that persons with HIV who are taking ART, or persons who are in a relationship with someone who has HIV and is taking ART, should still use proven prevention methods, such as condoms. (Source: CDC)

How long can I live with HIV?

There are many things you can do for yourself to stay healthy. Here are a few.

Make sure you have a health care provider who knows how to treat HIV. Begin treatment promptly once your doctor tells you to. Keep your appointments. Follow what your doctor tells you. If your doctor prescribes medicine for you, take the medicine just the way he or she tells you to because taking only some of your medicine gives your HIV infection more chance to fight back. If you get sick from your medicine, call your doctor for advice; don’t make changes to your medicine on your own or because of advice from friends. Get immunizations (shots) to prevent infections such as pneumonia and flu. Your doctor will tell you when to get these shots. Practice safe sex to reduce your risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or another strain of HIV. If you smoke or use drugs not prescribed by your doctor, quit. Eat healthy foods. This will help keep you strong, keep your energy and weight up, and help your body protect itself. Work out regularly. Get enough sleep and rest. Take time to relax. Many people find that meditation or prayer, along with exercise and rest, help them cope with the stress of having HIV or AIDS. (Source CDC)

How do people get HIV?

Only specific fluids (blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk) from an HIV-infected person can transmit HIV. These fluids must come in contact with a mucous membrane or an open cut or be directly injected into the blood-stream (from a needle or syringe) for transmission to possibly occur.

In the United States, HIV is most commonly spread through specific sexual behaviors (anal or vaginal sex) or sharing needles with an infected person. It is less common for HIV to be transmitted through oral sex. (Source: CDC)

Talking about HIV with partners

There is no easy answer for talking to a partner about HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Although many people find it easy to have sex, they find it hard to talk about it. So how does one begin?

Every relationship is a little bit different. The most important thing is to talk about STDs before having sex. But many people feel too embarrassed or scared to do this, or do not have the communication skills to talk about it. Most of the time, a person simply has to muster up enough courage to bring up the subject.

However, some people are just too scared to bring up the subject altogether, for fear of a partner rejecting them by the mere mention of the terms "STDs" or "HIV/AIDS." Keep in mind that if your partner breaks up with you because you have brought up the subject of STDs, then there was not much keeping the relationship together in the first place! Also, there is only one way to know your partner's HIV/AIDS and other STD risk factors, and that is to directly ask. (Source: Statussexy.com)

Lowering risk if one of us is HIV+

It is rare for a partner with an undetectable viral load to transmit HIV. However, it still makes sense to take extra steps such as using a condom. Condoms are very effective at stopping the spread of HIV. They must be used correctly, every time you have sex. If you can get used to using condoms, you can relax and enjoy yourselves more during sexual activity.

Other Ways to Reduce Risk: Risk is lower if the infected partner is taking antiretroviral medications. If so, take every scheduled dose of medications. Avoid sex when you’re sick: a sexually transmitted disease, or even a cold or flu. Avoid sex for a couple of weeks after getting any vaccinations. (Source: The Body)

What to do if I'm exposed to HIV

If a condom breaks, or if you forget to use one, anti-HIV medications might prevent HIV infections. This has not yet been proven to avoid transmission between sex partners. Talk to your primary care doctor or go directly to the emergency room and ask about n-PEP, "non-occupational Post-Exposure Prophylaxis". Do not just take a few doses of your partner's medication! That might not be the right treatment.

For n-PEP to work, it must be started very soon after exposure to HIV. Discuss n-PEP with your doctor in advance so that you know what your options will be in case something happens that exposes the negative partner to HIV. For more information about nPEP call Project Inform's PEP line at 1.800.822.7422 and www.projectinform.org. You can also download a booklet that will help you talk to your doctor to decide if n-PEP is right for you.

How often should I be tested?

Most HIV tests are antibody tests that test for the antibodies your body makes against HIV. It can take some time for your body to make enough antibodies for the antibody test to detect, and this time frame can vary from person to person. This time frame is known as the “window period.” Most people will develop detectable antibodies within 2 to 8 weeks (the average is 25 days). Even so, there is a chance that some people will take longer to make detectable antibodies. Therefore, if the initial negative HIV test was given within the first 3 months after possible exposure, another test should be considered >3 months after the exposure occurred to account for the possibility of a false-negative result. Ninety-seven percent of persons will develop antibodies in the first 3 months following the time of their infection. In very rare cases, it can take up to 6 months to develop antibodies to HIV. (Source: CDC)

After getting the initial test results, you should be tested every six months.

Tell me about condom usage.

Consistent and correct use of latex condoms can reduce (though not eliminate) the risk of STD spread. To achieve the most protective effect, condoms must be used both always and correctly. Inconsistent use can lead to STD contractions because transmission can occur with a single act of sex with an infected partner. Similarly, if condoms are not used correctly, the protective effect may be lowered even when they are always used. (Source: CDC)

Lubricants. Is there a diff?

A good lube can go a long way in making sure that safer sex is pleasurable and fun. Lube is important in safer sex because it also makes condoms and dams slippery and less likely to break. Lube makes safer sex feel better by cutting down on the dry kind of friction that a lot of people find irritating. When buying lube, it's important to find the right kind — one that works for you and for your condom. Never use oil-based lube with a latex or rubber condom. Use only water or silicone-based lube with latex and rubber condoms. Read the package insert if you have any questions about what you can use. (Source: Planned Parenthood)

What's risky?

Not using a condom when having sex with a person who has HIV.

All unprotected sex with someone who has HIV contains some risk. However, unprotected anal sex is riskier than unprotected vaginal sex. Among men who have sex with other men, unprotected receptive anal sex (bottom) is riskier than unprotected insertive anal sex (top).

Having multiple sex partners or other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can raise the risk of infection during sex. Unprotected oral sex can also be a risk for HIV transmission, but it is a much lower risk than anal or vaginal sex.

Sharing needles, syringes, rinse water, or other equipment used to prepare illicit drugs for injection.

Being born to an HIV positive mother—HIV can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breast-feeding. (Source: CDC)

Should I get the HPV vaccine?

Yes, if you are between the ages of 13 and 26. It has been proven to be safe and effective in preventing the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is related to cancers of the throat, anus and penis. Men who have sex with men are more susceptible to these cancers, particularly anal cancer, which they are 20 times more likely to get than men who only have sex with women. HPV has no cure, so being vaccinated is your best protection. It also protects your partners, both male and female. Most cervical cancers in women are directly related to having gotten HPV from a male partner.

Do I have to worry about syphilis?

Yes. Syphilis is a serious disease for men who have sex with men. It increases your chance of getting HIV, and also makes you sicker if you already have HIV. Syphilis is spread through skin-to-skin contact and unprotected oral, anal and vaginal sex. It is a serious infection and will not just go away. However, it is easily treated. Get tested for syphilis regularly; be sure to ask your healthcare provider. Symptoms of syphilis are sores, a rash, fevers and/or flu symptoms. You can get syphilis more than once.

What STDs should I be tested for or vaccinated against?

As a sexually active man who has sex with men, you should be vaccinated against Hepatitis A & B, and also the HPV virus. Ongoing tests, at least once a year (preferably every 6 months), should include HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia and an anal pap smear. Men who have sex with men are 20 times more likely to get anal cancer than men who only have sex with women; 40 times more likely for those who are HIV positive.