Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, is a virus that attacks the body's immune system. Over time the virus weakens a person's defenses against disease, leaving them vulnerable to many infections and cancers that would not normally develop. Some people with HIV infection have no symptoms at all, some have mild health problems, and others have been diagnosed with AIDS.
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the later stage of HIV infection. AIDS means HIV has seriously damaged the immune system. Often the person has been diagnosed with a life-threatening infection or cancer. It can take 10 years or more from the time of initial infection with HIV to a diagnosis of AIDS. On average, people with AIDS used to live approximately two to four years after diagnosis. Now with new treatments, people are living a lot longer.
HIV is transmitted when infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids, or breast milk enter the body through the mucous membranes of the anus, vagina, penis (urethra), or mouth, or through cuts, sores, or abrasions on the skin. Anyone who is infected can transmit the virus, whether or not they have any symptoms of AIDS.
HIV is spread most commonly by unprotected sexual intercourse.
Anal and vaginal sex are the riskiest. There are a small but growing number of reported cases of HIV transmission through oral sex. With each of these practices, the receptive partner is at greatest risk. In heterosexual sex, women are at greater risk than men.
Sharing needles or syringes to inject drugs also spreads HIV.
People who share the same needle or syringe can transmit HIV in the small amounts of blood that remain in the used needle or syringe. It is also risky to share the "cookers" or cotton used to prepare drugs for injection. Rinsing needles and syringes with water and bleach reduces the risk of transmission.
HIV is spread from an infected mother to her infant.
About 1 in 5 babies born to HIV-infected women are HIV infected themselves. The virus can be transmitted during pregnancy, birth or through breast-feeding. However, recent evidence shows that taking AZT during pregnancy reduces the risk of vertical transmission by 2/3, suggesting that all at risk women should consider being tested.
Who is at risk for HIV infection?
Anyone can become infected with HIV. At highest risk are men who have sex with other men and people who share needles used for drug injection. Heterosexual contact accounts for a growing number of reported AIDS cases especially among women. On an overall global level HIV is transmitted primarily through heterosexual contact.
How is HIV infection prevented?
The only way to completely avoid HIV infection is to abstain from all activity that could result in exposure and contraction of the virus. The next most certain ways are ones that reduce the risk but do not eliminate it.
Safer Sex and Condoms
Safer Sex means always assuming that your partner could be HIV positive, and never allowing his or her risky body fluids (blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk) to enter your body. Touching, dry kissing, body rubbing, and mutual masturbation are the safest sexual activities. Safer penetrative sex means always using a latex barrier for anal, vaginal, and oral intercourse. This includes using a condom on a man or barrier protection such as plastic wrap, a dental dam, or cut condom for oral sex on a woman and for oral-anal contact.
Do condoms provide 100% protection?
No. To be completely safe from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases you must abstain from sex. But, for people who are sexually active, condoms are highly effective if used consistently and correctly. When condoms do fail, it is most often because of improper use. Following these basic rules will further reduce the small chance of condom failure:
Use latex (rubber) condoms. These are preferable to "natural skin" condoms, which may have tiny holes that can allow the virus to pass through. Also currently available are polyurethane condoms for those who have allergic reactions to latex.
Choose a condom that fits. Condoms come in different sizes, shapes, and styles. Experiment with different condoms and practice putting them on before intercourse.
Open and handle condoms carefully. Never use a condom in a damaged package or one that is past its expiration date. Do not store condoms in hot or sunny places.
Use plenty of water-based lubricant to reduce the friction that can cause breakage. Never use an oil-based lubricant with a latex condom. Oil-based lubricants like Vaseline, hand cream, and mineral oil rapidly break down latex and can allow the virus to pass through. Water-based lubricants include K-Y Jelly, Slippery Stuff, ForPlay, and most contraceptive jellies. Lubricants containing the spermicide nonoxynol-9 may add extra protection against pregnancy in the event of breakage, but some people are sensitive to this ingredient and can develop rashes or sores, which could result in a higher risk for contraction or transmission of HIV.
Put the condom on after erection but before insertion. Leave some room at the tip for the discharged semen (some condoms have a reservoir tip for this). It is important to pinch the tip as you unroll to be sure there is no air bubble that could pop under pressure. If the penis is uncircumcised, pull back the foreskin before unrolling the condom all the way down to the base of the penis.
After intercourse, withdraw the penis while still erect, holding the base of the condom to prevent its slipping off or spilling semen. Remove the condom and wash the penis. Urinating after intercourse as well as washing the vaginal area is recommended for women.
Use a condom only once and dispose of it in the garbage, not in the toilet. Never reuse a condom.
Use a new condom EVERY TIME.
For more information about HIV/AIDS and other Sexually Transmitted Infections please call free to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention HIV Hotlines:
1-800-344-7432 (Spanish) 8am-2am EST
For testing and counseling at the Commission, call for an appointment at (212) 584-9325