Causes

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is transmitted through unprotected sexual contact and blood. Without treatment and over the course of several years, HIV can develop into acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). A person can therefore be a carrier of HIV, but not have AIDS.

Who is at risk of infection?

HIV infection is relatively rare, but certain groups are more likely to be affected, particularly men who have sex with men. In fact, an estimated 1 in every 7 men who have sex with men could be infected with HIV in Québec.

The following activities are associated with an increased risk of infection:

  • having sex without protection (a condom or pre-exposure prophylaxis [PrEP])
  • sharing injection materials
  • being tattooed or pierced with non-sterile materials

HIV is not transmitted through casual, everyday contact such as shaking hands, sneezing, kissing, sharing a meal, using the same toilet or drinking from the same glass.

Symptoms and complications

People infected by HIV do not always have symptoms, and when they do appear, they can pass by unnoticed. Because someone can be infected without knowing, it is especially important to practice safe sex and to get tested regularly.

The following symptoms of HIV infection can appear between two to four weeks after the infection and last one to three weeks:

  • flu-like symptoms (fever, muscle pains, headache, sore throat)
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • sores in the mouth
  • rashes on the torso or face
  • nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • significant weight loss

It is very important to understand that even if there are no symptoms, the virus will remain in the body and can still be transmitted to another person.

HIV attacks the system that defends us from infections: the immune system. By doing so, HIV can weaken those defences and make you more vulnerable to other diseases and infections. Without treatment, there is a risk of developing potentially life-threatening infections once the infection progresses to the AIDS stage.

Screening and treatment

How to test: Testing is performed using a blood sample.

When to test: The minimum delay before detection is 14 days after exposure with fourth generation tests and 21 days after exposure with third-generation tests. With some exceptions, the window period for detection ends eight weeks after exposure.

There is no cure for HIV.

Adequate medication and medical follow-up can provide excellent control of the infection, helping to limit its transmission and prevent progression of the disease.

The term “undetectable” is used when the amount of virus present in the blood (the viral load) is not detected. Based on the latest studies, an undetectable viral load indicates that the virus is no longer transmissible.

Today, seropositive people, when treated, have a quality of life and life expectancy comparable to that of the general population.

Protection

Currently, there is no vaccine to protect against HIV.

Condoms and/or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) are the most effective and commonly used methods to protect against HIV. For more information, see “Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) against HIV.”

In cases of at-risk exposures and activities, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) also exists. PEP can be taken within 72 hours following an at-risk event to significantly reduce the risk of HIV infection.

Since it is possible to be infected and not have any symptoms, routine screening may be recommended depending on your risk factors.