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HIV Frequently Asked Questions

Organizations like BAO operate to assist people living with HIV in establishing and maintaining access to prevention, treatment, and healthcare in general. If you are living with HIV and need assistance with resources, healthcare, or HIV treatment, contact BAO today.

What is HIV? 

  • "HIV" stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.  Many people know HIV as the "AIDS virus”, but HIV is the virus that can cause Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) if left untreated.


Can I tell by symptoms if I am HIV positive or not?   

  • You cannot tell your HIV status by symptoms. Symptoms of HIV may not occur for years after you become infected, so many people are infected and do not know it. Initial symptoms of HIV are very common and may be associated with a variety of illnesses. These symptoms include fever, chills, and body aches, but they often last a few weeks. 

  • If you are feeling sick or having symptoms you should see your doctor. However, if you think you might have been at risk of getting HIV, you must get an HIV test to confirm your HIV status.


Are HIV and AIDS the same thing?

  • No, HIV and AIDS are not interchangeable terms, although the media often uses them that way. HIV is a virus, which is a tiny microscopic organism. AIDS occurs when the HIV virus destroys a significant amount of person's immune system cells, which can lead to a collection of illnesses or diseases.

  • A person can have HIV for many years without progressing to AIDS. Some people can live with HIV for 15 years or more without having symptoms. They are considered to be living with HIV. When a person living with HIV develops minor symptoms, it may be a sign that the virus has destroyed enough immune system cells for the disease to progress. A healthcare provider can use symptoms and certain tests to see if a person living with HIV has progressed to AIDS.


Which body fluids do not transmit HIV and which ones do?

  • Saliva, Sweat, Tears, and Urine do not transmit HIV -- But, semen, blood, and vaginal fluids do. Any activity that includes no direct contact with your partner's semen, blood or vaginal fluids is safe. Activities that do involve direct contact with semen, blood, or vaginal fluids are defined as risky. Any precautions that reduce the chance of direct contact with those fluids will make sex safer, such as condom use.


Isn't abstinence the only real "safe" sex?

  • Yes. That is why we use the term "Safer" Sex. Safer sex is any means of enjoying sex to the fullest without transmitting or acquiring any sexually related infections. Safer sex does not mean eliminating sexual passion and intimacy from your life. It just means that you have to be aware of the risk and use the tools available to reduce the risk to a level that both you and your partner feel comfortable with.


Can I get HIV by just masturbating with my partner? 

  • Masturbation is one of the safest sexual activities you can engage in. It is safe for semen or vaginal fluids to contact healthy, unbroken skin in mutual masturbation. Healthy skin (no open cuts or fresh sores) provides very good protection against HIV.


Is HIV spread by kissing?   

  • There is no evidence that saliva transmits HIV. Deep kissing may transmit other sexually transmitted diseases, but not HIV. Kissing or licking your partner's body will not spread HIV. The only time kissing could be a possible mode of transmission for HIV would be if there was a significant presence of blood in the mouth of the person living with HIV.


Can it be risky to perform oral sex on a person with a vagina?

  • No. The risk of getting HIV by performing oral sex on a person with a vagina is lower than the risk of getting it through vaginal and anal sex. Using a latex square, dental dam, or plastic wrap may reduce the transmission risk further. During menstruation, the risk may increase because of the presence of blood.

  • The risk of a person with a vagina acquiring HIV by receiving oral sex is extremely low. Some other diseases, such as gonorrhea and herpes, may be transmitted during oral sex on a person with a vagina.


Can it be risky to perform oral sex on a person with a penis?

  • No. Performing oral sex on a person with a penis is lower risk than vaginal and anal sex or sharing injection drugs. However, low risk does not mean no risk. In a person with a penis who is living with HIV, both semen and pre-ejaculatory fluid (pre-cum) contain the virus could be introduced into the mouth, so merely stopping before ejaculation may not eliminate the risk.

  • Using a condom for oral sex on a person with a penis reduces the risk of getting HIV. The risk of a person with a penis getting HIV by receiving oral sex is very low. Some other diseases, such as gonorrhea and herpes may be transmitted by giving oral sex to a person with a penis.


Are all condoms the same?

  • No. There are many options available in brands, styles, colors, flavors, and lubrication. Latex condoms are most effective at preventing HIV transmission when used properly. Natural skin or animal membrane condoms do not prevent HIV transmission.

  • Be aware that many condoms, french ticklers, glow-in-the-dark, etc. are sold as novelty items and are not intended to prevent transmission of any disease. Latex and plastic condoms do not provide 100 percent protection against HIV transmission, but they are highly effective if they are used properly each time you have sex.


How long after a possible exposure should I wait to be tested to know for sure that I am not HIV infected?    

  • The tests used to determine HIV infection look for antibodies produced by the body to fight HIV. According to the CDC, most people will develop detectable antibodies within 3 months after infection. In rare cases, it can take up to six months. A test at least 3 months after the last possible exposure should be highly accurate. However, the CDC recommends testing again at 6 months, just to be sure.


How do you use a condom?

  • Always leave a space at the tip to receive the semen. Put a drop of water-based lubricant inside the tip of the condom to increase pleasure. Do not use oil-based lubricants as they can cause the latex to break. Put the condom on the erect penis before any contact with the other person.

  • If the penis is uncircumcised (uncut), pull back the foreskin before rolling the condom down. Unroll the condom slowly all the way down the shaft of the penis, making sure to remove any air bubbles and inspect for holes. Have a spare condom handy, just in case. Use only water-based lubricants. Also, apply water-based lubricant to the vagina or anus in addition to the lubrication applied to the outside of the condom to further reduce the chance of breakage.

  • After ejaculation, carefully pull the penis out while it is still erect, and hold onto the base of the condom to prevent slipping. Be careful not to spill the semen. Dispose of the used condom. Never re-use condoms!


Is the blood supply safe?

  • The United States blood supply is among the safest in the world. In 1985, technology made it possible to test donated blood for HIV. Virtually all people who are living with HIV because of blood transfusion or blood products received them before 1985. Potential blood donors must undergo strict screening test prior to being accepted as donors.

  • Anyone that is determined to be at high risk for HIV is rejected. Blood and blood products are carefully tested and are safely disposed of if they prove to contain the HIV virus. At present, the risk of HIV transmission through receiving a blood transfusion or blood products in the United States is very rare and continues to become more infrequent even in areas with a high prevalence of people living with HIV.


What does an "HIV-positive" test result mean?

  • A reactive, or positive, test result could mean your body has been infected by the human immunodeficiency virus - and that you are capable of transmitting it to others. The test did not look for the virus itself but found evidence of it in your blood. There's no way to tell from this result who gave you the virus, how long you've had it, or when it will begin to affect your health. You may see or hear the results called "HIV-positive," "HIV+," "HIV-antibody positive," or "seropositive for HIV." These terms all mean the same thing. People who have acquired the human immunodeficiency virus are said to be “people living with HIV”. While the virus itself is not a disease, it progressively damages the body's immune system. This puts you at risk for developing illnesses you wouldn't otherwise get.

  • At this time, doctors don't know of any way to rid the body of HIV. There is no cure. Once you've been infected, you have it for life. However, an HIV diagnosis is now extremely manageable with antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART, when taken consistently and as prescribed, can prevent a person living with HIV from developing AIDS, and even prevent them from transmitting HIV to other people.


How does HIV harm the body?  

  • Viruses tend to be specialists. They zero in on a few particular types of cells in the body and move in. The human immunodeficiency virus is best known for targeting a part of the human immune system called T cells. However, it can also attack cells of the brain, nervous system, digestive system, lymphatic system, and other parts of the body.

  • The immune system is made up of specialized cells in the bloodstream that fight off invading germs to keep the body healthy. The "T" cells (also referred to as "T4," "helper-T," or "CD4" cells) are the brains of the operation. These white blood cells identify invaders and give orders to soldier-type cells, which then battle various bacteria, viruses, cancers, fungi, and parasites that can make a person sick.

  • Like all viruses, HIV is only interested in one thing: reproducing itself. Once it has attacked and moved into a T cell, it converts that cell into a miniature virus factory. Eventually, there are so many new viruses in the cell that the T cell explodes, scattering the HIV back into the bloodstream. The virus then moves on to fresh T cells and repeats the process. Over time, HIV can destroy virtually all of an infected person's T cells in this manner.

  • With fewer and fewer "leaders" to rely on for warnings, the "soldier" cells become powerless. They can no longer recognize and fight off common organisms that would not present a problem to a healthy immune system. These organisms may be lying dormant in the body already or may enter from outside. The immune system's weakness allows them to wake up, multiply, and cause illness. Thus, we call these illnesses "opportunistic infections." People with fully functioning immune systems are rarely troubled by these particular infections -- but those with damaged immune systems are highly vulnerable to them. These opportunistic infections are often called “AIDS-defining illnesses”, as only a person with CD4 count as low as HIV causes develop these infections. These opportunistic infections and “AIDS-defining illnesses” occur at a CD4 count of 200. A person who is not living with HIV and is otherwise healthy has a CD4 count of 500-1500.


How much time do I have before I get sick?

  • One of the most important determining factors in whether or not a person will get sick largely depends on how soon in the disease progression they seek medical care. But, everyone living with HIV will have a different experience. Those who do not receive drug therapy will increase their chances of becoming ill. A few men and women won't have any HIV-related symptoms at all. They may only come down with an AIDS-defining illness years down the road when their T cells are almost gone -- if ever. Others will face a continuing series of non-life-threatening symptoms (rashes, fungal infections, diarrhea) as the virus gradually weakens their immune system.

  • Based on past experience, most people who are living with HIV will likely fall somewhere in between these two illness extremes. They can expect to have a few symptoms here and there over a number of years before being diagnosed with AIDS. Symptoms won't show up on any set schedule or in any particular order.

  • Experts now say the average length of time between infection with the virus and diagnosis of the first serious AIDS-related illness is 10-15 years. Though no one knows exactly why, a large percentage of women, infants, and the elderly seem to become ill sooner.

  • However, keep in mind that these "predictions" apply to the group of people living with HIV as a whole. You as an individual may have a very different outlook. A lot can depend on your general state of health at the time you got the virus, and how long you have had it.

  • Significant advancements have also been made in HIV management and HIV prevention, including antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART, when taken as prescribed, can help people living with HIV to delay or prevent the progression of HIV to AIDS.


What if I already have AIDS?  

  • With consistent care from a medical provider, opportunistic infections can clear up and you could feel fine again. The average life expectancy for people living with AIDS varies widely but has continued to increase over the year through advances in medications and medical care. Someone living with HIV and in consistent care now has a similar life expectancy to someone never diagnosed with HIV. 


Doesn't AIDS kill you?   

  • While HIV itself does not cause death, the opportunistic infections it allows are often lethal. Without therapy, the HIV virus is nearly 100% fatal.

  • In the past several years, however, critical advances in knowledge, drugs, and treatment philosophies have had a great impact on the life expectancy of people living with HIV. Today, hundreds of thousands of people living with HIV live long and productive lives thanks to new therapy regimens. 

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