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What causes HIV infection and AIDS?

HIV infection is caused by a virus. AIDS is a disease that can result from HIV infection.
HIV attacks your body’s immune system, making it unable to fight certain illnesses. If you are HIV-positive (infected with HIV):

  • your infection could progress to AIDS if you develop a serious illness, such as pneumonia (a lung infection)
  • you may develop AIDS in 5 to 10 years if you do not get treatment for HIV infection
  • you can live a near-normal lifespan if you start treatment early for HIV infection

How is HIV spread?

HIV is spread by infected body fluids, such as:

  • blood
  • semen
  • fluid from the rectum
  • fluid from the vagina
  • breast milk

HIV can only spread when infected fluid from a person with HIV gets into the bloodstream of another person through:

  • broken skin
  • wet linings of the body, such as the

  • vagina
  • rectum
  • foreskin

  • the opening of the penis

HIV cannot spread through:

  • healthy, unbroken skin
  • casual contact, such as:

  • hugging
  • kissing
  • shaking hands

  • sharing food
  • mosquito bites
  • toilet seats

If you have HIV, you can pass the virus to your baby during:

  • pregnancy
  • childbirth
  • breastfeeding

You can only spread HIV, not AIDS. That is, whether you have HIV or AIDS, you can only infect others with HIV.


What are the symptoms of being HIV-positive and AIDS?

Although AIDS can develop after you have been infected with HIV, the symptoms are different.


You may develop mild flu-like symptoms 2 to 4 weeks after becoming infected with HIV. Common early symptoms include:

  • fever
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • joint pain
  • swollen glands (lymph nodes)

The symptoms of HIV infection will go away on their own. You may be HIV-positive and not know it because you may not experience any more symptoms for 5 to 10 years.


AIDS will eventually develop if you do not seek treatment for HIV infection. Starting treatment early for HIV can help you live a near-normal lifespan.
Symptoms of AIDS include:

  • pneumonia (a lung infection)
  • cancerous tumours on the skin
  • fungal infections, such as yeast infections
  • viral infections, such as shingles
  • long-term diarrhea
  • unexplained weight loss

What do you do if you become ill?

If you think you may have the symptoms of HIV or AIDS, see a health care provider to get:
  • tested
  • counselled
  • treated
If you have been infected, it is important that others you have had close contact with are notified, such as:

  • your past and current sex partners
  • people you have shared drug paraphernalia with, such as:

  • needles
  • syringes
  • cookers
  • spoons
  • water
  • filters

Telling your sex partner(s)

If you are uncomfortable telling a sex partner that you have HIV, ask your health care provider for help. He or she can:
  • notify your past sex partner(s) without revealing your identity
  • give you support and information on how to tell your past and current sex partner(s)

In Canada, the law may require you to tell your sex partner(s) you have HIV before you have sex.

Risks of HIV & AIDS

What are the risks of getting HIV and developing AIDS?

The risks of getting HIV and having the infection develop into AIDS are as follows.

Getting HIV

The risks of getting HIV are mostly behaviour-based. You can get HIV by:

  • having sex with an infected person without using a condom during:

  • vaginal sex
  • anal sex

  • performing oral sex without a condom

  • this is considered low risk unless you have open sores or cuts in your mouth
  • using a condom during oral sex can reduce the risk

  • sharing sex toys you insert into your body without cleaning them between partners
  • having broken skin or open wounds come in contact with infected:

  • blood
  • blood products

  • sharing drug paraphernalia with an infected person, such as:

  • needles
  • syringes
  • cookers
  • spoons
  • water
  • filters

Developing AIDS

You cannot develop AIDS unless you are infected with HIV. Most HIV infections will develop into AIDS. You can reduce the risk of developing AIDS by starting treatment.

Who is most at risk?

You are at higher risk of HIV infection if you:

  • already have another sexually transmitted infection (STI), because of:

  • your weakened immune system
  • open sores on your skin caused by an STI, such as herpes or syphilis

  • have sex with many sex partners without using a condom
  • receive a blood transfusion or organ transplant while in a country that does not properly check for contaminated:

  • blood products
  • organ supplies

Some people are at higher risk because of whom they have sex with. For example, certain groups, such as men who have sex with men, have a higher rate of HIV infection. People in these groups are more likely to meet a partner with HIV infection.

If you are infected with HIV, you are also at higher risk of:

  • becoming infected with another STI
  • passing HIV to a sex partner

Diagnosis and Treatment

How is HIV diagnosed?

HIV is tested for by doing a blood test. Results can take about 1 to 2 weeks depending on where you live.

HIV will not show up in a blood test immediately after you have been infected. It can take between 15 and 30 days. It depends on the type of test you get.

If you think you have HIV but it does not show up in your blood test:
  • ask your health care provider if it might be too early for the test to detect HIV
  • depending on the test given, your health care provider may ask you to repeat the test to be sure
HIV testing sites across Canada offer different services and testing options. Some sites offer:

  • anonymous testing

  • this means only you will know you took the test and the results

  • rapid HIV testing

  • this means you will get your test result almost immediately

Contact your local public health department or HIV testing site to find out what services are available in your area.

When you get tested for HIV:
Ask to be tested for other infections, such as:

  • chlamydia
  • gonorrhea
  • syphilis
  • genital herpes
  • hepatitis B
  • hepatitis C

Then follow up to learn:

  • your test results
  • any treatment you might need

How is HIV treated?

There is no cure for HIV.

If you have HIV, you can be treated with antiretroviral drugs. These drugs help:
  • lower the level of HIV in your body
  • slow the spread of the virus in your body
  • help your immune system fight off other infections
Treatment can:
  • give you a better chance of living a longer, healthier life
  • decrease your risk of passing the virus on to others

Starting treatment early can increase your chance of living a near-normal lifespan.
Treatment is also available for many of the infections and diseases associated with having AIDS.

Prevention of HIV and AIDS

How can HIV and AIDS be prevented?

There is no vaccine to protect against HIV. You can develop AIDS only if you are infected with HIV.

If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, treatment can prevent you from becoming infected with HIV. You should:

  • see a health care provider immediately to find out if treatment is right for you
  • start treatment within 72 hours of a possible exposure if your health care provider recommends treatment

Sexual activity
All sexual contact has some risk. You can reduce getting and/or spreading HIV by practicing safer sex. Safer sex, also known as safe sex, is more than just wearing the proper protection. It includes:

  • getting tested regularly for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) (having an STI increases your risk of getting and/or spreading HIV)
  • discussing STI prevention with your sex partner(s)
  • discussing with your partner(s) what sexual contact you will have
  • using condoms and other barriers safely(s)
  • having fewer sex partners to reduce potential exposure to STIs

Drug injection
If you inject drugs, you can reduce the risk of getting and spreading HIV by following safe injection practices. These include:

  • avoiding sharing drug injection paraphernalia, such as:

  • needles
  • syringes
  • cookers
  • spoons
  • water
  • filters

  • using new paraphernalia every time you inject

You can also consider getting help by signing up for a substance use treatment program like methadone therapy. Such a program can help you reduce your:

  • substance dependence
  • risk of getting and spreading HIV and other STIs

Pregnancy and childbirth
If you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant, you and your partner should get tested for HIV and other STIs.
If you have HIV, you can prevent passing HIV to your baby by:

  • taking antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy
  • avoiding breastfeeding after you give birth

Acupuncture and other procedures
If you are getting a tattoo, body piercing, electrolysis or acupuncture, you can avoid getting and/or spreading HIV by ensuring:

  • these procedures are carried out by professionals who follow universal precautions for controlling infection, like those used in hospitals
  • all needles used, as required by law, are:

  • used only once
  • disposed of after use

Medical tourism
If you are traveling to another country to get medical care, ensure:

  • the blood and blood products used in the facility are screened for HIV
  • the facility follows proper practices to control infection

Workplace exposure

If your job exposes you to contaminated blood or other bodily fluids, you may be at risk for HIV infection.

You can reduce your risk by following routine practices for controlling infection in your workplace.

Note:The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images and information, contained on or available through this web site is for general information purposes only. Source of Information: Government of Canada | www.travel.gc.ca

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