HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, and it is the virus that, left untreated, can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Dr. Patel, can you tell us more about HIV?
Sure, Dr. Mayzik. HIV attacks and destroys certain cells, called T-cells, in the body's immune system. This makes it difficult for the body to fight off other infections and diseases. As the immune system weakens over time, opportunistic infections can cause serious problems and even become life-threatening. When a person's immune system becomes this damaged, they are diagnosed with AIDS, the last phase of HIV. Unfortunately, HIV is not a virus the body can ever get rid of completely, even with treatment.
HIV is transmitted through certain body fluids, including blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. Infected body fluids must come in contact with damaged tissue or a mucous membrane, or be directly injected into the bloodstream from a needle or syringe for transmission to occur. HIV cannot be transmitted through air, water, saliva, sweat, tears, insects, pets, or sharing toilets, food, or drinks.
In the United States, HIV is primarily spread through anal or vaginal sex with an infected partner who isn't taking medicines to treat HIV and through using injection drugs with shared needles, syringes, or other equipment. Although it is less common, it's also possible for an HIV-positive mother to pass the virus to her baby during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding.
Anal sex is the riskiest type of sex for spreading HIV. Because the lining of the rectum is thin, it's susceptible to tearing during sexual activity, which makes it easy for HIV to enter the body. For this reason, men who have sex with men are disproportionately affected by HIV.
It's also important to know that having another sexually transmitted infection greatly increases the risk for getting HIV. Syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and herpes are STIs that are closely linked with increased HIV risk.