Risks of HIV and AIDS

Find out about the risks of getting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and developing acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Also learn who is most at risk.

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Risks of getting HIV and developing AIDS

Getting HIV

The risks of getting HIV are mostly behaviour-based. Most commonly, HIV is spread through sexual activity or needle sharing. You can get HIV by:

  • having vaginal or anal sex with someone who is HIV-positive and is not on treatment and virally suppressed without using a condom
  • performing oral sex without a condom
    • this is considered low risk unless you have open sores or cuts in your mouth
    • using a condom during oral sex can reduce the risk
  • having broken skin or open wounds come in contact with infected:
    • blood
    • blood products
  • sharing drug equipment with someone who is HIV-positive, such as:
    • needles
    • syringes
    • other equipment (works) to inject drugs

HIV cannot spread through:

  • healthy, unbroken skin
  • casual contact, such as:
    • hugging
    • kissing
    • shaking hands
    • sharing food
    • mosquito bites
    • toilet seats

New scientific evidence confirms that people on antiretroviral treatment who maintain a suppressed viral load (based on tests taken every 4 to 6 months) pose effectively no risk of transmitting HIV infection to their sexual partner.

A suppressed viral load means that the number of copies of the HIV virus per millilitre of blood is reduced to very low levels (ie under 200 copies of the virus per millilitre of blood).

For more information, view the full scientific article "Risk of sexual transmission of human immunodeficiency virus with antiretroviral therapy, suppressed viral load and condom use: a systematic review." (Available in English only).

Developing AIDS

You cannot develop AIDS unless you are infected with HIV. Most HIV infections will develop into AIDS if left untreated. You can reduce the risk of developing AIDS by starting treatment.

At-risk groups

You are at higher risk of HIV infection if you:

  • already have another sexually transmitted infection (STI), because of:
    • a weakened immune system
    • open sores on your skin caused by an STI, such as herpes or syphilis
  • have sex with multiple sex partners without using a condom
  • receive a blood transfusion or organ transplant while in a country that does not properly check for contaminated:
    • blood products
    • organ supplies
  • inject drugs and share equipment with others

Some people are at higher risk because of whom they have sex with. For example, certain groups, such as gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, have a higher rate of HIV infection. People in these groups are more likely to meet a sexual partner with HIV infection.

Likewise, rates of HIV are higher among people who inject drugs than in the general population. This is why using sterile equipment, such as clean needles available through needle exchange programs across Canada, can prevent the spread of infection.
If you have with HIV, you are also at higher risk of:

  • becoming infected with another STI
  • passing HIV to a sex partner if you are not taking HIV treatment as prescribed by a healthcare provider and do not have a suppressed viral load (consecutive testing done every 4-6 months)
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