What is HIV/AIDS?

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that infects and kills human immune system cells. When a large portion of immune system cells have been killed, people infected with HIV can develop Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Once infected with HIV, a person will have it for life. However, medications can help keep immune system cells alive and prevent the development of AIDS.

There are currently about 1.1 million people living with HIV in the United States, and most cases occur in urban areas.

How do people get infected?

HIV is passed through contact with bodily fluids, most often through sexual contact or through sharing of intravenous needles. HIV is transmitted during sexual contact when blood, semen, rectal, or vaginal fluids from an HIV-positive person come in contact with mucus membranes of an HIV-negative person. When needles are shared, HIV-infected blood can be transmitted directly into the bloodstream of an HIV-negative person.

How can I protect myself?

For people who are sexually active, there are three main ways to protect against HIV infection: using condoms consistently and correctly, choosing safer sexual practices, and reducing the number of sexual partners.

Male condoms are highly effective at preventing HIV infection and they also prevent other sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and chlamydia. Although condoms are highly effective, there is still a risk of HIV transmission using condoms. Practicing oral sex rather than anal or vaginal sex reduces the risk of HIV transmission.

Reducing the number of sexual partners can reduce the risk of HIV transmission because it’s less likely that you will encounter someone with an HIV infection. In addition, up to 16% of HIV-infected individuals are not aware that they are infected.

What should I do if I’m exposed?

Contact your doctor immediately. If you think you have been exposed to HIV, your doctor will be able to offer you a post-exposure prophylaxis that may prevent the virus from making enough copies to infect you. With urgent questions you can also call the free Massachusetts HIV/AIDS hotline at 800-235-2331.