Learn more about HIV

Dr. Candice Fraser MD, FACOG, MBA
December 1, 2022
(5 mins read)
Sexual Health

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks a person’s immune system, and if untreated can destroy a person’s ability to fight off infections. HIV is mainly transmitted through anal or vaginal sex and by sharing needles and syringest used for drug use. Without proper treatment, HIV can also be transmitted during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. In general, HIV can be transmitted by exposure of broken or damaged mucous membranes to infected bodily fluids such as blood, semen, rectal fluids, vaginal fluid and breastmilk. Mucous membranes are the type of tissue located in the mouth, vagina, rectum and penis. A diagnosis of HIV in the 1980s and early 1990s was essentially a death sentence for many, however with the availability of many medications for the treatment of HIV, most are living long, healthy lives. The availability of effective treatment makes early detection and finding treatment with an HIV specialist important.  

Approximately 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV and approximately 13 percent of people currently infected with HIV do not know their status.  According to the CDC, in 2019, there were 34,000 new HIV cases in the United States. 70 percent of these cases were among gay, bisexual and other men who reported male-to-male sexual contact. 28 percent of new cases were among people who reports heterosexual contact, and 7 percent among IV drug users. In 2020, 42 percent of new HIV diagnoses were among black people and 27 percent among hispanic people. 

Many people may have flu-like symptoms 2-4 weeks after getting infected, however, since these symptoms are common, most may not consider HIV as a possibility.  Some people don’t have any symptoms at all and the best way to know your status is to get tested. The CDC recommends that everyone ages 13 to 64, get tested for HIV at least once. They also recommend getting tested every year if you’re a man who has had sex with another man, you’ve had anal or vaginal sex with someone who has HIV, had more than one sex partner since your last HIV test, you’ve shared needles, syringes, or other drug injection equipment (for example, cookers), exchanged sex for drugs or money,  been diagnosed with or treated for another sexually transmitted disease, hepatitis or tuberculosis, or if you’ve had sex with someone who has done anything listed above or with someone whose sexual history you don’t know. 

To prevent HIV infection, it is important to practice safe sex. Proper use of male and female condoms is very effective in preventing HIV. Using water and silicone based lubricants during sex also helps to prevent condoms from breaking and slipping. A person can also choose to engage in sexual activities that have a lower risk of HIV transmission, such as oral sex. Taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is highly effective in preventing HIV when taken consistently.

HIV can impact the lives of women in unique ways. In addition to an increased risk of other sexually transmitted infections, women living with HIV are at an increased risk of experiencing vaginal yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.  HIV may also affect the menstrual cycles, possibly causing irregular periods, and heavier or lighter flow. Women with HIV also have a higher risk of cervical cancer, and should be screened more frequently with pap smears. Even though medications to treat HIV are as effective in women as they are in men,  women can have more severe side effects than men. HIV may cause some women to start menopause at an earlier age and have worse symptoms such as hotflashes. HIV may also increase risk of osteoporosis as bone loss occurs at a faster rate. The risk of heart disease and heart attacks is three times more in women who have HIV, than women who do not have HIV. Transmission of HIV during pregnancy is of concern for many, however the use of antiretroviral medications to keep viral load undetectable, can reduce transmission during pregnancy or childbirth to less than 1 percent. Finally, while women living with HIV can safely use any type of birth control method, some HIV medication may reduce how effective some types of birth control are. With the understanding of how HIV affects the lives of women different to men, prevention, early detection and treatment is of utmost importance. 

If you need help understanding your risks or would like to get tested, our Kiira clinicians are available to help.