When you know what HIV is, how it’s transmitted and what you can do to avoid it, you may feel less afraid, have fewer concerns, and be able to choose the right strategies for you so you can enjoy your sex life to the fullest.

What is HIV/AIDS?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) attacks and destroys the immune system bit by bit. The immune system is the body’s defense system, which usually fights off viruses and bacteria. Once the body is infected, over the years, it’s more and more affected by illnesses. Left untreated, an HIV infection evolves towards AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).

From HIV to AIDS

An HIV infection has four stages of development. These stages represent the “natural” evolution of HIV, meaning what happens without treatment. Treatment allows a person to live in good health and to preserve or rebuild a strong immune system. As well, effective treatment prevents the sexual transmission of HIV.

4 stages

Stage 1: Primary infection

This is the first stage of infection once the virus enters your body. This stage lasts a few weeks to a few months. During this time, the virus multiplies quickly in the body and the risk of transmission is highest. To multiply, HIV uses your immune system’s own cells (mostly CD4 and CD8)—your body’s defense system. The effect is that it kills your defense system’s cells, making your body vulnerable to illness.

During this stage, you may develop symptoms much like a bad cold, or you may have a skin rash. You may also have no symptoms at all.

Stage 2: HIV without symptoms

During this stage, your immune system is strong enough to defend your body against HIV and prevent the development of illness. This stage may last years. Throughout this period, HIV continues to multiply and infect your immune system’s cells.

Stage 3: HIV with symptoms

At this stage, your immune system is weakened, and you may feel symptoms such as fatigue, weight loss, skin problems, ongoing fever, constant diarrhea, or swollen glands.

Stage 4: AIDS

AIDS is the last stage of HIV infection. At this stage, various infections will take the opportunity offered by your weakened immune system to attack you. This is when you develop illnesses, some of which may be fatal.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is transmitted through five bodily fluids:

  • Sperm and pre-ejaculatory fluid (pre-cum)
  • Anal secretions
  • Vaginal secretions
  • Blood
  • Breast / chest milk

HIV is transmitted only when one of these fluids, from an HIV-positive person who doesn’t know their status or is not undergoing treatment, comes into contact with the blood system of an HIV-negative person. This can happen, for example, through:

  • A cut on the skin (bleeding, wound)
  • Ejaculation
  • Vaginal or anal secretions
  • Breastfeeding or chestfeeding
  • Sharing equipment for drug injection or inhalation
  • Mucous membranes: vaginal, anal, around the penis
  • Using unsterilized or poorly sterilized tattoo or piercing equipment

HIV is NOT sexually transmitted when:

HIV is NOT transmitted in everyday situations, such as:

  • Using the toilet
  • Sharing glasses and utensils
  • Physical contact, such as shaking hands, hugging or kissing
  • Sneezing and spitting
  • Mosquito bites or other insect bites
  • Eating, working or playing sports with an HIV-positive perso

How can you know if you've contracted HIV?

For more information about how testing works, visit the Testing page in the Prevention strategies section.

How can you prevent infection?

There are several ways to prevent HIV infection. To choose the best strategies for you, visit the Prevention strategies section.

As long as you’re having sex with men, get tested for HIV and other STIs at least once a year.