HIV is slowly, but steadily, spreading across Alberta. Gay or straight, rural or urban, male or female – the virus doesn’t play favorites.
You can avoid almost all risks of HIV infection by following a few steps. These steps my be straightforward, but talking about them and putting them into practice can often be harder. Read on, help is available.
The Basics About HIV:
- HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) attacks the body’s immune system, gradually leading to the life-threatening disease called AIDS.
- There is no vaccine for HIV infection. The only way to prevent infection is to avoid risk.
- HIV is most often spread through sexual intercourse (anal, vaginal), sharing needles and syringes, or from an infected mother to her baby.
- People can look and feel well, and still spread HIV. To be sure whether or not you’re infected, an HIV antibody blood test is required.
Click any of the sections below to open up more information.
What am I doing that puts me at risk of HIV?
First remember that:
- HIV is NOT being spread by insect bites, toilet seats, food handling, hugs and kisses.
- Since November 1985, the Canadian blood supply has been screened for HIV antibodies.
- The virus is not being spread by health care workers in Canada.
Let’s be honest. The spread of HIV is being driven by unprotected sexual intercourse and the sharing of needles. If these behaviours were stopped, new infections would soon be rare.
What about sex and HIV?
Some sex is risky, some are safer, most fall somewhere in between. Take control, and you will know that your choices do not put you or others at risk.
Your risk increases every time you come in contact with the semen, vaginal fluid or blood of someone who may be infected. These are fluids where HIV is found in amounts high enough to infect others.
You are at high risk if you don’t know if your partner is free of infection, and you:
- Have anal intercourse without using a condom.
- Have vaginal intercourse without using a condom.
- Swap dildos, vibrators or other sex toys without washing them between uses of warm water and soap or bleach.
- Having sex with only one person, or being monogamous, doesn’t necessarily protect yours from HIV infection or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
- How long have I been with this one partner?
- Have I been at risk in the last 10 years?
- Has my partner been at risk in the last 10 years?
- Do I know that my partner does not have other sexual relationships or share needles?
Remember, with unsafe sex you are really being exposed to every sexual partner your partner ever had, every partner your partner’s partner ever had, and so on and so on you greatly reduce your chances of getting HIV infection if you practice safer sex. This means, instead of intercourse with no condom, you properly use a latex condom every time you have anal or vaginal intercourse.
Safer sex means not coming into direct contact with another person’s blood, semen or vaginal fluids. A few examples:
- Petting and masturbating (if the vagina or anus is entered, make sure hands don’t have cuts on them).
- But be warned, you are at risk if these activities end up being foreplay to unprotected intercourse.
How safe is oral sex?
In the 1980s, there were concerns that oral sex (mouth to penis, mouth to vagina) might be very risky, because semen and vaginal fluids can carry HIV. Now, with more knowledge about how the virus is spread, it appears that oral sex is much less risky than either anal or vaginal intercourse. Oral sex with a latex condom or dental dam is considered safe. Without this type of protection, chances for HIV infection are small but not zero, keeping in mind that all risks increase with the frequency of the activity.
HIV can be found in blood. So remember:
- Do NOT brush or floss your teeth and gums before having oral sex.
- Do NOT have oral sex if either partner has sores around the mouth, penis or vagina.
- Do NOT have (mouth to vagina) oral sex during a woman’s period.
One other caution, some other STD’s are spread easily through oral sex.
What about alcohol and other drug use?
Drug use can be risky in two different ways. First, you can’t think as clearly when you are drunk or stoned. In fact, in a survey Albertans report drinking as a major cause of unsafe sex. Second, injecting drugs with shared needles and syringes is one of the riskiest things you can do.
How risky is sharing needles?
Sharing needles and syringes is getting more dangerous as HIV is spreading among injection drug users in Alberta. If you inject, you won’t be at risk if you do NOT share. Use only new, sterilized equipment. If you share needles, you are putting someone’s blood directly into your blood. Using unclean needles for steroids, tattooing or body piercing is dangerous, too. If you must share, clean needles and syringes first by flushing full strength bleach through the works at least 3 times. Tap the filled syringe a few times to loosen any dried blood that might still be in the needle. Then rinse it through 3 times with clean water. Cleaning needles reduce the risk of HIV infection.
How does the HIV Virus work?
HIV attacks the Helper T cells (T4 cells), a type of white blood cell instrumental in fighting disease. In the HIV reproduction process, a T4 cell is used by a viral cell to manufacture two viral cells in its place. The body’s ability to fight diseases decreases and the HIV positive individual becomes sick with diseases that are not normally a risk to healthy individuals (called Opportunistic Infections). Therefore, a person sick with AIDS is not a risk to healthy individuals. When the individual’s T4 cell count has dropped low enough, the viral load is high enough and they are diagnosed with one or more Opportunistic infections, they are diagnosed with AIDS. Individuals may die within a short time of this diagnosis or they may regain their health. Medications have been developed that prevent opportunistic infections and that combat the HIV replication process. For this reason, HIV+ people are living longer, both before and after becoming sick with AIDS.
Do condoms work?
Condoms, like vows of abstinence, can break and slip. However, if you choose to have intercourse, you greatly reduce your risk by using latex condoms correctly. Don’t be shy about buying condoms. Hundreds of thousands are sold every day. To the person selling them, you are just another customer. It is very common for people to use condoms only some of the time. That is a weak strategy for dealing with a life-threatening illness.
Your protection by condoms improves a lot if you take a few simple steps:
- Use latex condoms every time you have intercourse, no matter what other methods of birth control you may use. Latex acts as a two-way barrier to protect both partners from HIV and most other STIs.
- A little lubrication on the inside and outside of the condom improves the feel and ease of entering. Only use water-based lubricants such as saliva, KY JellyTM, MukoTM, and Elbow GreaseTM.
- NEVER use VaselineTM, petroleum jelly, baby oil, cooking oil or anything else that is oil based. Oil-based substances destroy latex in seconds.
- Latex, just like rubber bands, becomes brittle over time or under extreme conditions. Do NOT keep condoms in your wallet or car glove compartments. Keep out of direct sunlight and away from heat or cold. Check the expiry date of the condoms, found on either the package or box. Throw out old condoms and buy fresh ones.
- Most important, plan ahead. An extra trip to the store just to buy condoms doesn’t always fit with the mood. You are more likely to practice safer sex if condoms are nearby.
- If you know you are about to have intercourse, take the condom out of the package before foreplay. This way it will be ready when you are.
Does nonoxynol-9 kill HIV?
Nonoxynol-9 is found in contraceptive foams, jellies, and lubricated condoms. It helps kill HIV as well as sperm. But, do NOT depend on jelly or foam to stop HIV. A condom is far more effective. NEVER use Nonoxynol-9 during anal sex: it causes irritation. Also, stop using it during vaginal sex if it causes irritation. Try rubbing some on the inside of your wrist and see if your skin turns red. If you do react, you are worse off using Nonoxynol-9 then not.
How do I use condoms for safer sex?
If you are not used to condoms, take one out of the package when you are alone. Being familiar with them will make you more comfortable. There is nothing complicated about condoms. They come in different shapes, sizes, textures and even flavours.
How can I convince my partner to practice safer sex?
You don’t need to apologize for protecting yourself. Safer sex is for both partners. If either of you has had any other sexual or needle-sharing partners you could be infected, and you run the risk of infecting each other. One approach doesn’t work in all situations, but there are some helpful hints that might work for you.
Do NOT wait until you are in the heat of passion or until you have had a few drinks to talk to your partner. In a calm but firm way, tell your partner that you, like many others, believe in and practice safer sex. Sometimes it seems easier to have sex than to talk about it. Try mixing humour in with understanding and knowledge. If you are clear about abstinence or condoms, you won’t have to constantly rehash the “sex issue” with the same partner.