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HIV & AIDS Health Center

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HIV/AIDS Risk Factors

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A variety of HIV risk factors can increase your chances of becoming infected with a virus called HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). This infection can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), which makes it more difficult for your body to fight off infection and disease. Some risk factors increase your HIV risk more than others. You can't entirely eliminate risk, but you can do many things to lower your risk and protect yourself.

HIV/AIDS Risk Factors

Certain behaviors can increase your HIV risk. These are some of the most common risk factors:

  • Having unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who is infected with HIV or whose HIV status you don't know.
  • Having many sexual partners.
  • Having sex with a sex worker or an IV drug user.
  • Sharing needles, syringes, or equipment used to prepare or inject drugs with someone who is HIV infected.
  • Using needles for piercing or tattooing that are not sterile. (An accidental needle stick with a contaminated needle or medical instrument, however, is a very rare cause of HIV transmission.)

Other Possible HIV/AIDS Risk Factors

Other factors may also increase your HIV risk. For example, having sex under the influence of alcohol or drugs may lead to other risky behaviors, such as having unprotected sex. Here are other potential HIV risk factors:

  • Having another sexually transmitted disease (STD), such as herpes, chlamydia, syphilis, or gonorrhea. STDs may cause changes in tissue that make HIV transmission more likely.
  • Having sex after drinking alcohol or taking drugs.
  • Having a mother who was infected with HIV before you were born.
  • Having had a blood transfusion or received blood products before 1985. Since that time, however, all blood in the United States has been tested for HIV.
  • Having fewer copies of a gene that helps to fight HIV. Although not yet available, a screening test might one day be able to identify those who are more likely to get HIV and develop AIDS.

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself and Others

Because HIV is transmitted through infected blood, semen, or vaginal secretions, or through a mother's milk during breastfeeding, these are the most important steps you can take to lower your HIV risk and the risk to others:

  • Use a latex condom or square of latex or plastic wrap ("dental dam") each and every time you have anal, vaginal, or oral sex. (If you have a latex allergy, use polyethylene condoms with oil-based lubricants.)
  • Learn more about how to practice safer sex.
  • Learn about the HIV drug Truvada. It has been approved for use in those at high risk as a way to prevent HIV infection. Truvada should be used in conjunction with safe sex practices.
  • Don't share needles, syringes, or equipment used to prepare injection drugs or to inject them. HIV can stay in syringes for a month or longer. Seek treatment for drug use, but in the meantime, be sure to use a clean needle each time you inject.
  • See a qualified professional who uses sterile equipment if you plan to get a tattoo or have your body pierced.
  • Don't share toothbrushes or razors.
  • Talk to a doctor about getting tested for HIV if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. If you're HIV-positive, seek counseling and treatment, which can prevent HIV from being passed to a fetus or infant in most cases.
  • Do not breastfeed if you have a newborn and are HIV-positive.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on August 17, 2014
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