HIV is one of the most prevalent STDs in the USA. This high prevalence is due to the high rates of transmission of the virus from affected individuals to unaffected ones. HIV is transmitted from person to person through direct contact with infected body fluids.
HIV is spread when unaffected individuals come into contact with infected body fluids from HIV-positive people. A person can get HIV after being exposed to or ingesting infected blood. Semen and pre-seminal fluid in men, rectal mucous in both men and women, and vaginal fluid in women along with breast milk, also harbor large amounts of the virus and can transmit HIV to unaffected individuals.
Blood, out of all the infected body fluids, carries the biggest risk of HIV transmission. Understanding how the virus is transmitted helps physicians break the transmission cycle. This knowledge also helps the general public understand and implement effective HIV prevention methods for themselves.
HOW IS HIV TRANSMITTED TO UNAFFECTED PEOPLE?
HIV is a retrovirus that replicates rapidly in host cells after initial infection. The virus then populates and infects the bodily fluids of the host. Blood, semen, and mucous secretions of the rectum and the vagina all harbor huge amounts of this virus. Even breast milk can host large quantities of this virus in an infected person. HIV is transmitted when these fluids come into direct contact with the blood of another person.
For this transmission to be complete, HIV-infected fluids must come into direct contact with the blood of the unaffected person. This contact can be established through direct blood to blood contact, through mucous membranes (oral and anal cavity), and open sores or open wounds on the skin. Once the infected fluid comes into contact with the unaffected blood, the virus replicates quickly and spreads throughout the body fluids of the other person as well.
It is important to know that while coming into contact with infected body fluids carries exceptionally high risks of transmitting the virus, it's not always the case. Depending on sexual and lifestyle habits, some groups may be at a higher risk than others. Moreover, people who employ safe sex practices in their daily lives may be protected even in the event of high-risk exposure. Some people regularly take PrEP, the pre-exposure prophylaxis treatment for HIV, which reduces their chances of getting infected significantly – depending on how regularly they adhere to their treatment of course.
As explained above, some high-risk behaviors may put a certain group of people at an increased risk of acquiring HIV. These behaviors include unsafe sex practices and unhygienic and non-sterile use of needles and other injecting equipment. Sometimes, HIV can also be transmitted through uneventful medical procedures, such as blood transfusions. However, HIV transmission through medical procedures has recently seen a dramatic decline due to multiple safety protocols being employed.
Some scenarios that can result in HIV transmission include:
- Unsafe sexual intercourse
- Unsafe sex with multiple partners
- Oral sex
- Anal intercourse, especially in homosexual men
- Injecting drugs and sharing needles
- Sharing personal hygiene products such as razors
- Blood transfusions
- Tattoos and piercings with unsterilized equipment
- Mother to the fetus during pregnancy
- Contact with an infected person’s blood through open sores
- Kissing an infected person (through gum bleeds)
- Current or past history of STDs other than HIV
It is important to recognize and remember these patterns that can result in HIV transmission in our daily lives. An understanding of the HIV transmission cycle helps eliminate high-risk behaviors from our daily lives. However, equally important is to also remember how HIV can NOT be transmitted to other people.
With the growing myths and misunderstandings about HIV, the disease has acquired notorious fame. The growing stigma around the disease has caused people infected with HIV to suffer even more. While appropriate treatment of the disease and research into finding a cure is essential. Equally important is to ensure the spread of true and accurate knowledge about the disease so that the stigma around the condition can be effectively managed as well.
Now that you know how you can acquire HIV, here are a few ways that will not put you at risk for acquiring the virus:
Staying in close contact with an infected person – HIV cannot spread through air and water so it’s safe to live with an infected person.
Coming into contact with an HIV-infected person – infected people cannot transmit the virus to you through unbroken-skin contact. For HIV transmission to occur, infected body fluids must either come into contact with your blood, your mucous membranes or breach through an open sore or a wound on your skin.
Shaking and sharing – it's completely safe to shake hands with an HIV-infected individual unless they have infected body fluids on their hands. It is also safe to share food, utensils, and other things with infected people so long as none of the shared items get infected blood over them.
Sharing water source – HIV does not transmit through water. It is safe to share water sources with HIV-positive people.
WHAT IS VIRAL LOAD & DOES IT AFFECT HIV TRANSMISSION?
Your viral load is a measure of the number of viral particles per unit in your blood. Viral loads are excellent indicators of a person’s HIV infectivity status. If your viral load is high, it means that your HIV medication is not working and that you have a high risk of transmitting the virus to other individuals. Low viral loads mean that the treatment is successful and you have a low chance of spreading the virus.
With HIV treatment, doctors aim to achieve undetectable viral loads in their patients. An undetectable viral load means that the number of virus particles in your blood is so low that they can't be detected by the blood test.
CAN I HAVE SEXUAL INTERCOURSE WITH MY HIV-POSITIVE PARTNER?
If your HIV-positive partner has been strictly adhering to their medications, you might be able to have sexual intercourse with them but know that there is always a chance of transmission even if it is low.
Strict adherence to the treatment schedule will ensure an undetectable viral load in your partner's bloodstream. Undetectable viral load means that your partner won't be able to transmit the virus during sexual contact. In addition, using condoms is also ideal when having intercourse with your HIV-positive partner, even if their viral load is undetectable.
Talk to your doctor about how to approach sexual intercourse with your partner. Your doctor may be able to guide you about the do’s and don'ts of sexual intercourse with your HIV-infected partner.
HOW TO PREVENT HIV INFECTIONS?
Preventing HIV infection is easy if you know what you are doing. Understanding how HIV is transmitted provides an accurate blueprint for navigating safely around this disease. You should also consult your healthcare provider for tips to prevent HIV infection.
Here are some ways to protect yourself from HIV infection:
Practicing safe sex – wearing a condom during sexual activity is always recommended. Condoms provide a physical barrier through which HIV cannot be transmitted from one person to another.
Purchasing a new condom for every new sexual intercourse – new condoms must be purchased for every new sexual encounter, be it with the same person or another altogether.
Using a condom the right way – most people do not know how to properly put on a condom. Understanding how to use a condom properly can minimize the chances of getting infected with HIV.
Avoiding unprotected sex with multiple partners – having multiple sex partners is one of the biggest risk factors for the development of HIV. Limiting your sex partners is a sure way to protect yourself against an HIV infection.
Getting tested for HIV regularly – regular testing for HIV can provide you with good analysis and keep high-risk behaviors checked.
Not injecting drugs and sharing needles – IV drug injection users form a major percentage of the total HIV-positive population in the United States. If you are an IV drug user, make sure to seek treatment. If that is not an option, ensure that you aren’t using someone else’s needles or sharing your own with other people.
One of the best ways to prevent HIV infection is to take a PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylactic, regime. PrEP, as its name suggests, prevents HIV infection if taken regularly and religiously before exposure to HIV occurs. PrEP involves taking a single pill every day for as long as protection from HIV is required.
Q) Can HIV Be Transmitted Through Contact?
HIV cannot be transmitted through physical contact unless it's sexual – meaning that penetration is involved. Touching an infected person would not transmit the virus to you.
Q) Can I Stop Taking PrEP Whenever I Like?
Keep taking PrEP medication once a day for two days after your last sexual encounter and then stop whenever you like. If you haven't had any sexual encounters in the last two days you can stop PrEP immediately. PrEP can be stopped and restarted without the development of any drug resistance.
Q) Are nPEP and PrEP The Same Thing?
nPEP and PrEP are not the same things. PrEP is taken pre-exposure to protect from HIV infections. nPEP is taken as an emergency measure after HIV exposure has already occurred.