Understanding general risk of getting HIV vs. HIV high-risk groups and behaviors

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is transmitted through the introduction of the virus from one infected person to another, commonly transmitted through unprotected sex (vaginal or anal) and exchange of bodily fluids, including:

  • Semen
  • Preseminal fluid
  • Vaginal fluid
  • Rectal fluids
  • Blood

Aside from sex, the virus is spread through sharing of needles (intravenous drug users), and mothers passing it on to children during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

While anyone having unprotected sex can be infected with HIV, these two populations are at highest risk:

  • Men who have sex with men (MSM)
  • Transgender women

Risk of HIV infection also varies in different people given different behaviors. The two highest risk behaviors for being infected with HIV are:

  • Sharing needles or cookers for injection drugs
  • Engaging in anal sex without using a condom

When not treated, the HIV virus causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). In developing countries like the United States, most people with HIV do not progress to having full-blown AIDS because of the availability of antiretroviral medication.

Diagnosis for HIV and symptoms of HIV early stages

The only way to diagnose HIV is with a blood test. A test will not indicate HIV, but will show positive for the specific antibodies that fight against the virus. If you are diagnosed with HIV, your doctor will explain what the results mean and help you understand your options for treatment.

There are three distinct stages of HIV, although most people treated in the United States never reach the advanced stage. If you are treated for HIV early and you regularly take your medications, you can live a long and healthy life.

Acute HIV infection (first stage of HIV infection)

The first stage of HIV infection is within the first two to four weeks of infection with the HIV virus, during which time you may have no symptoms, or you may experience severe flu-like symptoms, such as:

  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Joint pain or muscle aches
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen glands

During this time, HIV is highly transmittable because of the amount of the virus in your system. If you are aware of being infected or suspect you may have been, be sure to see a doctor right away to get tested. You can also take precautions during this stage, such as practicing safer sex or not having sexual contact, or not participating in any behaviors that put others at risk.

At Main Line Health locations throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia, we welcome LGBTQ patients for testing and treatment of HIV.

Chronic HIV infection (second stage of HIV)

The second stage of HIV is called clinical latency or chronic HIV infection. During this period, the virus continues to reproduce slowly and you may not have any symptoms or you may have very few. If left untreated, your disease will continue to progress. However, most people are treated for HIV with antiretroviral drugs and can live well with chronic HIV for many years. During this time, the virus can still be transmitted to others but the amount of virus in the body is less than during the early stage of the disease.

AIDS (late stages of HIV)

The final and most advanced stage of HIV is AIDS. This is when your immune system has been so badly damaged by the virus that your body can no longer defend itself from common illnesses and other types of infection and diseases such as cancer. Without treatment during the late stages of HIV, a person’s life expectancy may be three years or less depending on lifestyle and other factors.

Getting HIV medical treatment and HIV treatment medication

HIV is commonly treated with a combination of lifestyle and behavior changes as well as medications, including HIV antiretrovirals to slow the virus down and keep it under control. For people who are HIV-negative but are concerned about exposure, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is commonly prescribed as a daily preventive medication.

PrEP is a combination of two medicines in one pill taken daily, that will prevent HIV from infecting a person who is HIV-negative, even if that person is exposed to the virus. The medication works in protecting people from HIV no matter how they are exposed—whether through sex or injecting drugs.

If you have questions, please call 484.337.LGBT (5428) to leave a message on a secure and confidential phone line.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.