Published on May 10, 2024 at 8:00 / Updated on May 25, 2024 at 8:00

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is a virus that attacks the immune system. The immune system defends the body against viruses, bacteria, fungi, cancer cells, and more.

People infected with HIV do not always present symptoms. That's why it's important to get tested.

When an infected person has symptoms, they usually appear 2 to 4 weeks after transmission.

Below are the most common symptoms:

  • Flu-like symptoms (e.g., fever, sore throat, muscle aches)
  • Swollen glands in the neck, under the arms, or in the groin
  • Redness on the body
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

Afterwards, the infected person may go more than 10 years without showing any symptoms.

HIV is a disease that can be transmitted sexually or through contact with infected blood. The following activities are conducive to HIV transmission:

  • Vaginal or anal sex
  • Sharing sex toys
  • Sharing non-sterile drug injection, piercing, or tattooing equipment.

Oral sex involving contact between the mouth and the penis, vulva, or vagina are rare causes of HIV transmission.

If left untreated, HIV will lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS can cause serious infections, certain types of cancers, improper functioning of the nervous system, and significant weight loss.

Causes and triggers

HIV is spread through certain body fluids, including blood, semen, vaginal and anal secretions, and breast milk. Transmission can occur when a healthy person (who doesn't carry the virus) comes into contact with the body fluids of an infected person.

Everyone is at risk of contracting HIV. However, some situations pose a higher risk, including the following:

  • Having unprotected vaginal or anal sex
  • Having another sexually transmitted or blood-borne infection (e.g., chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis)
  • Sharing injection equipment such as syringes or needles
  • Accidentally getting a needlestick


Currently, there is no cure for HIV, and there is no vaccine available to reduce the risk. Certain medications are available to limit and control the infection. These treatments allow infected individuals to live a life comparable to that of people without HIV.

There are also several steps you can take to avoid becoming infected with or transmitting HIV:

  • Use condoms and lubricant during sex
  • Use sterile equipment for tattoos, piercings, and medication or drug injections
  • Do not share sex toys
  • Screen for HIV if engaging in risky behaviours
  • Tell your partners before having sex if you have HIV
  • Take your medication as directed
  • Use preventive medication prior to exposure to the virus (e.g., during sexual intercourse with a risk of transmission)
  • Use medication following probable exposure to the virus

When should I see a health care professional?

Speak with your health care provider in the following situations:

  • You have engaged in sexual behaviours that put you at risk for HIV
  • You have shared non-sterile injection equipment
  • You think that you have a sexually transmitted or blood-borne infection
  • You may have been exposed to the virus (e.g., accidental needlestick)

For more information:

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