HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is probably the most feared sexually transmitted infection around today. And there are reasons for that! HIV is not something to mess around with, especially because there is no cure.
But that doesn’t mean that if you get HIV that the world will end and there’s no point in moving forward. Managed correctly, HIV will become such a minor part of your life, you’ll almost forget you even have it. Yes, really!
What is HIV?
HIV is a retrovirus that attacks the body’s immune system. Once you are infected, the virus starts rapidly replicating to take over your body’s natural defense against infections and cancer.
HIV can significantly weaken the immune system until it is rendered defenseless, leading to life threatening infections and cancer. This stage of the disease process is called AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).
How is HIV transmitted from one person to another?
HIV is carried in blood and sexual fluids. This means that it can be spread in vaginal fluids and semen, as well as through contact with infected blood. This also includes from mother-to-child during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.
If you would like to learn more about how HIV is transmitted during sex, check out this post.
How do I protect myself from HIV?
Knowing that HIV is spread via blood and sexual fluids, we can protect ourselves by limiting contact with those fluids.
This means that condom use is especially important. Condoms should be used for any type of penetration of the vagina or anus. To protect yourself and your partners during oral sex, you can use dental dams or similar alternatives (let me show you what I mean).
HIV cannot be spread by hugging, kissing, sharing eating utensils, etc. HIV is not found in saliva.
Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP)
Here’s one you might not know about! PEP is the method of preventing HIV infection after you have already had sex with someone with HIV. This also includes when the condom bursts and the barrier method fails.
How it works
If you have had a high risk sexual encounter (or have been raped) and are worried that you might get HIV, you can immediately go to your health care provider and request PEP. You will be given medication to take for 28 days, which will reduce you risk of getting HIV.
The aim is to kill off any trace of HIV before it has a chance to get into your immune system. in order for this to be successful, you have to take this medication within 72 hours of exposure. The sooner the better!
There are a number of different medications that can be used as PEP, so you will receive one depending on what is available in your country/clinic.
Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP)
This one is similar to PEP, but instead you will take the medication BEFORE your high risk sexual encounter. I bet your first question is,”But why would I knowingly expose myself to HIV???”
There are so many reasons why someone would need this! The first, and most obvious reason that comes to mind is long-term committed couples where one partner has HIV and the other doesn’t. The person without HIV can take this medication to prevent getting HIV, even if they are exposed to it.
But why wouldn’t they just use condoms?
Many reasons! Maybe they are trying to fall pregnant and can’t use condoms. Maybe they want the extra the peace of mind, and be prepared in case the condom bursts. Maybe they struggle to use barrier methods during oral sex. The list can go on.
The difference with PrEP is that you must take this medication every day. It takes 7 days before it is effective to protect against HIV from receptive anal sex, and 21 days to protect against HIV from receptive vaginal sex.
Want to know more?
If you would like to know more about how to protect yourself from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, you’re in luck! I have created a Mini eBook called The Ultimate Guide to Safe Sex for Women Who Love Women. AND I’m giving it away ABSOLUTELY FREE for a limited time only!
Inside this guide you will find everything you need to know and more! It contains all my tips and tricks that will help keep sex fun AND protected.
What are the signs of HIV that I can look out for?
Unfortunately HIV is a sneaky infection which likes to go under the radar. A lot of the time there can be no signs or symptoms at all. And other times the signs are so vague, you won’t be able to tell whether it’s from HIV or a bunch of other infections.
During the early stages, you may have a flu-like illness with a fever, general malaise or tiredness, or even a rash.
After that, HIV will show no signs at all until the disease process is more advanced. During the advanced stage, you can get severe infections, especially rare infections that don’t usually affect healthy individuals.
This is why it is so important to get tested and know your HIV status.
How do I test for HIV?
It is relatively easy to test for HIV, and it can be done right there in the doctor’s office. There are cheap rapid antibody tests readily available which only require a drop of blood.
The health care provider will simply prick your finger, drop the blood onto the test strip and add a diluent. The test will show the result within a few minutes. These tests are available in pharmacies for home use depending on your country.
There are other more formal tests which are slightly more accurate and include taking a vial of blood and sending it to the lab. It can take a few days to a few weeks for the results to come back, depending on the test and the lab used.
I already have HIV. How can I protect myself and my partner?
The number one thing you can do to protect yourself and your partner is to take your medication correctly.
The goal of HIV treatment is to slow down (or stop) the progression of the disease. In order to measure how well the HIV is controlled, there are two different blood tests that we do.
The first test we do is the HIV viral load.
This test measures the number of copies of the HIV virus found in the blood. You want this number as low as possible.
Ideally, we want this test to show the result as: lower than detectable. That means that the virus is so well controlled that they struggled to find and count it in the lab.
When the HIV viral load is undetectable, it means that the virus has basically gone dormant, it’s asleep and not replicating. This means that the disease process is halted and you can expect to live a normal, long healthy life, just like someone without HIV. The virus is controlled.
When HIV is controlled like this, the risk for passing on the virus to someone else reduces dramatically and becomes almost impossible. This is how you can protect your partners. By keeping your HIV viral load Undetectable, it becomes Untransmittable.
This is where the U=U HIV campaign stems from.
The second test we do is the CD4 count. The CD4 count basically measures how well your immune system is functioning. Remember that HIV attacks the immune system, so we want to make sure that your immune system is strong enough to fight off infections and certain cancers.
Ideally, we want this number to be above 500, which is similar to healthy individuals who do not have HIV.
HIV is definitely not something you want to mess around with, whether you have it already or not. Use the above methods to protect yourself (and your partners) from HIV and make sure you test regularly to know your HIV status.
HIV can be well managed with medication which can halt the disease process. Taking your medication correctly, maintaining an undetectable viral load and keeping an eye on your CD4 count will ensure that you have a long, normal, healthy life. HIV is not a death sentence!
Take care of yourself!
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Disclaimer: This blog contains my opinions and doesn’t reflect the opinions of the Department of Health of South Africa or The Southern African Sexual Health Association. All information is accurate and true to the best of my knowledge, but it’s possible that there may be omissions, errors or mistakes. While I am a qualified medical doctor, I am not YOUR doctor. The information presented on this blog is for entertainment and/or informational purposes only and shouldn’t be seen as professional medical advice. If you rely on any information presented, it’s at your own risk. Please consult a professional before taking any sort of action. I reserve the right to manage this blog as I see fit, including the right to remove harmful or unhelpful comments.