What it is

HIV stands for the human immunodeficiency virus. HIV is an infection that, with daily HIV treatment, is a long-term chronic condition.

When a person is infected with HIV, the virus makes copies of itself by using the cells in the body that are part of the immune system.

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This destroys these immune cells in the process. If left untreated, HIV will continue to destroy immune cells until the damage to the immune system becomes more severe and eventually people develop AIDS. This is a process that can take up to 10 to 15 years.

AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, which means that an infection with HIV has developed to a late stage. The immune system has been weakened to the point where the person with HIV is more likely to get infections or other illnesses that can be life-threatening. If an HIV infection is left untreated, it is likely that it will eventually lead to the person who has the infection dying from AIDS.

Symptoms

When people become infected with HIV, they may experience a range of symptoms within about two to four weeks after the infection. These include a rash on the body, fever, and other flu-like symptoms. Of course, these symptoms are only HIV-related if an individual has engaged in an activity that could result in HIV infection.

The only way to know if you have HIV is to have an HIV test. For more information on HIV testing, contact Ontario's AIDS and Sexual Health Information Line at: 1-800-668-2437; Toronto: 416-392-2437.

How you prevent it

There are now several highly effective ways to prevent the transmission of HIV. In order to be highly effective, these tools need to be used consistently and correctly.

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These include:

  • Condoms
  • HIV treatments for people at high-risk of HIV (pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP and post-exposure prophylaxis or PEP)
  • Undetectable viral load, when people with HIV take HIV treatments as prescribed
  • Harm reduction, or the use of various tools and strategies to prevent infection when people inject or use drugs

You can find a needle syringe program here.

HIV can only pass from one person to another during specific activities. These activities include unprotected vaginal or anal sex (i.e., sex without a condom or without HIV treatment), the sharing of drug use equipment (such as needles, cookers, or pipes), and during pregnancy, delivery and breast feeding - when the woman has untreated HIV and does not have access to HIV-knowledgeable care. During these activities, HIV can be concentrated enough in blood, semen, vaginal fluids, anal fluids or breast milk to allow for transmission when exposed to the mucous membranes of the other person (inside the anus, vagina, mouth and throat).

If you think you have it

If you think you have HIV, visit your health care provider or sexual health clinic to get tested immediately.

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Get tested

In Ontario, most HIV tests are done with a family health care provider. But, you can also get an HIV test from an anonymous testing site, a sexual health clinic, and in some communities there are additional testing sites within community health centres and other community-based organizations. In all these places, if you have an Ontario health card, you do not pay for the test. At some places, like anonymous testing sites, you do not have to have Ontario health insurance. The test is provided for free regardless of your legal status in Ontario.

When you get an HIV test at an anonymous test site or some sexual health clinics, it is a rapid test. You get the results in minutes. If the test is negative, you do not have HIV. If the test is 'reactive', a second blood test will need to be done to confirm that you do have HIV. You will need to come back in about one week to get the results of the confirmation test.

Get treated

There is no cure for HIV. However, there are effective treatments. Today's HIV treatments are easier to take (often one pill a day) and have fewer side effects than the treatments used earlier in the epidemic. Today, people with HIV who have access to HIV treatments and take them as prescribed by their health care provider, have the opportunity to live a long, full life similar to someone who does not have HIV. People with HIV can live longer and with fewer HIV-related health problems if they are diagnosed and start HIV treatment soon after they get HIV. That is why it is important for people who are at-risk for HIV to get tested on a regular basis. If they do get HIV, it will be diagnosed early and they can benefit the most from HIV treatments.

HIV treatments stop HIV from completing the process of taking over the immune cells and using them to create more HIV. Normally, within a few months of starting HIV treatments, a person has such a small amount of HIV remaining in their blood that the test used to measure it – a viral load test – cannot find it. This means the person has an 'undetectable viral load', and HIV is no longer able to damage the immune system the way untreated HIV can. It also means there is a minimal chance that HIV can be transmitted to another person.

Learn more about testing and treatment programs in Ontario here.

I want to know more about HIV

I need to get tested, go to an AIDS service organization, or find an HIV health care provider: For immediate assistance and referral, please call the AIDS & Sexual Health Infoline at: Province-wide: 1-800-668-2437; Toronto: 416-392-2437

To learn more about what the Government of Ontario is doing, check out Ontario's HIV response and the HIV (OACHA) Strategy.