HIV/AIDS: An Overview

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This webpage is for information purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.) AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV infection.

HIV attacks a person’s immune system, making it difficult for the body to fight off diseases, bacteria, viruses and infections.

Since HIV symptoms sometimes don’t appear for years after exposure, many people aren’t aware of their HIV positive status. HIV, however, can still be passed on whether an individual living with HIV has symptoms or not.

Getting tested is the only reliable way to know your HIV status.

How HIV Is - and Isn’t - Spread

You can get HIV through high-risk activities, where you come into contact with infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk..

HIV can be spread:

  • Through having unprotected sex (vaginal, anal and/or oral) with someone who is HIV positive.
  • By sharing needles, syringes and other drug using equipment that is contaminated with HIV.
  • By using tattooing and body piercing equipment - including the ink - that isn't sterilized or properly cleaned and is infected with HIV.
  • From an HIV positive woman to her baby before or during birth or by breastfeeding.
  • When the body’s natural immunity is weakened with other infections, especially sexually transmitted infections.

HIV cannot be spread by:

  • touching
  • shaking hands
  • hugging or kissing>
  • coughing and sneezing
  • giving blood
  • using swimming pools or toilet seats
  • sharing bed linens
  • sharing eating utensils or food
  • animal, mosquitoe or other insect bites

Early Symptoms of HIV Infection

Many people don’t develop symptoms immediately following exposure to HIV. Others, however, experience flu-like symptoms within several days to weeks after HIV infection. They may complain of fever, headache, tiredness and enlarged lymph glands in the neck.

As the immune system weakens, a person living with HIV may experience one or all of the following symptoms:
  • Lack of energy
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent fevers and sweats
  • Persistent or frequent yeast infections
  • Persistent skin rashes or flaky skin
  • Short-term memory loss

AIDS Symptoms

Over a period of 10 years or more the HIV virus destroys the immune system so that the body loses the ability to fight infection.

When HIV Becomes AIDS

HIV develops into AIDS when the body has been weakened in such a way that the person becomes vulnerable to certain cancers and other infections the immune system would normally destroy. Most of these conditions are infections caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and other organisms.

Some of the common symptoms of AIDS include:

  • Coughing and shortness of breath
  • Seizures and lack of coordination
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Confusion and forgetfulness
  • Severe and persistent diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Vision loss
  • Nausea, abdominal cramps and vomiting
  • Weight loss and extreme fatigue
  • Severe headaches with neck stiffness
  • Coma

Preventing HIV

You can lower your risk of getting HIV by:

  • Using lubricated latex or polyurethane condoms for vaginal sex.
  • Using latex or polyurethane condoms with extra lubricant for anal sex.
  • Using non-lubricated condoms for oral sex on a man.
  • Use a latex barrier - a dental dam or a non-lubricated condom cut length-wise - for oral sex or oral/anal sex on a male or female partner.
  • Being tested together with all new partners prior to sexual activity. Not sharing needles, syringes, drug injecting equipment or sex toys.
  • Ensuring that tattooing and piercing equipment is sterile.
  • HIV Pretest Information (PDF 49KB)


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