HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is a virus that can weaken your immune system, leaving the body vulnerable to serious disease.

How is HIV transmitted?

Only five body fluids can contain enough HIV to transmit HIV infection: blood, semen (including pre-cum), rectal fluid, vaginal fluids and breast milk.

The most common ways that these fluids are shared are:

  • anal sex
  • vaginal sex and
  • the sharing of needles or other equipment to inject or inhale drugs.

Breast milk can cause mother-to-child transmission of HIV. To learn more about risk of transmission through breastfeeding click here.

Who is at higher risk of getting HIV?

Anyone can get infected with HIV irrespective of their age and sex. However, individuals belonging to certain populations are considered to be at a higher risk of getting HIV. These include:

  • Gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, including trans men
  • People (men and women) from African, Caribbean and Black communities — including men and women from parts of Africa and the Caribbean where HIV is endemic
  • Indigenous peoples
  • People (men and women) who inject drugs (PWID)Women* = Cis and Trans
  • Women, including women from the above populations, and other women who face systemic and social inequities, and are more likely to be exposed to HIV through a sexual or drug using partner

How is HIV diagnosed?

You can’t tell if someone has HIV just by looking at them. A person can have HIV without symptoms for years, although sometimes a person will have flu-like symptoms or a rash 2-3 weeks after they are infected. The only effective way to know your HIV status is by getting tested.

In Ontario there are two ways to get an HIV test:

  1. Point-of-Care (rapid) HIV test
  2. Standard blood draw

Ontario, like the rest of Canada, uses bioLytical’s INSTI HIV-1/-2 antibody test for rapid testing, which gives preliminary results within a few minutes. This is a screening test, which means that all reactive results need a standard blood draw to confirm.

How is HIV treated?

There is no cure for HIV. However, people living with HIV can prevent ill health by regularly taking simple oral medications. These medications can reduce the virus in their blood to undetectable levels. When people continually and consistently take their medications, it protects their own health, and if they maintain an undetectable viral load (for at least six months), they cannot transmit HIV sexually to another person. Treatment is most effective when people are treated as early as possible.

The pharmacist can answer questions about high-risk activities and prevention methods like condoms; as well as preventative medications (referred to as PrEP: Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis,) which can reduce the risk posed by these activities.