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How Do You Contract HIV and AIDS?

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD November 13, 2018

IntroductionHIV-AIDS-21

Fortunately, this isn’t 1983, but HIV and AIDS are still far too common. Thankfully, we now know how HIV infection is contracted. Yet, HIV and AIDS awareness are still critical. Be knowledgeable to be empowered!

This is the third blog in an ongoing series on HIV and AIDS.

  • To read a discussion of HIV being eliminated from the body, click here.
  • For an explanation of what HIV and AIDS are, click here.
  • For an explanation of the signs and symptoms of HIV and AIDS, click here.

How HIV lives

First, let’s address a simple principle. The HIV virus can live and reproduce in high levels in blood and other body fluids, including breast milk, rectal mucus, semen (and pre-semen) and vaginal fluids. Exposure and transmission of these fluids cause HIV infection. In special circumstances (such as healthcare workers), individuals may become exposed to other areas that may contain high levels of HIV, including amniotic fluid (in pregnancy women), cerebrospinal fluid (from the brain and spinal cord) and synovial fluid (from various joints).

Now please take a moment and look at the lead picture. In addition to those circumstances listed, you should know that fluids such as feces, nasal fluid, saliva, sweat, tears, urine or vomit don’t by themselves contain high enough levels to transmit HIV. Unfortunately, these fluids often mix with infected blood. In these cases, the blood exposure is prompting transmission.

HIV transmission

HIV transmission occurs in specific ways.

  • During anal, oral or vaginal sex – You have contact with your partner’s body fluids during sex. When your partner is infected, contact areas are very likely to be high in HIV viral load. These areas include the anus, mouth, penis, vagina or vulva. HIV infection is transmitted through small breaks in these surfaces. One of the reasons HIV infection rates are higher in individuals with herpes and syphilis is because those diseases cause open sores, creating additional opportunities for HIV-infected body fluids to enter the body.
  • During pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding – Babies have constant contact with their mother’s potentially infected body fluids. Means of transmitting HIV from mother to child include through amniotic fluid, blood and infected breast milk.
  • From injection drug use – Injecting drugs puts you in contact with blood. You can directly deliver HIV into your bloodstream with contaminated needles and their contents.
  • As a result of occupational exposure – Healthcare workers must be constantly diligent against this method of transmission. Risks of HIV transmission to healthcare workers occur through blood transferred from needle sticks and cuts, and less commonly through contact of infected body fluids splashed into the eyes, mouth or into an open sore or cut.
  • From a blood transfusion or organ transplant – Fortunately, this is now very rare. The stringency of screening requirements in the US has been largely successful in regards to this method of transmission. Still, it is possible to transmit HIV through blood transfusions or organ transplants from infected donors.

How you get HIV and AIDS

hivaids

How does one get AIDS?
AIDS is a progression of HIV into its later stages, after severe damage to the immune system. You don’t “get AIDS” as much as HIV progresses to AIDS in certain circumstances. It seems like not long ago HIV could progress to AIDS in a matter of a few years. Fortunately, with the development of specialized medications in the 1990s, people with HIV are living much longer with HIV before they develop AIDS.

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