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HIV risk factors: Are you risking your life?

More than 103,000 people in the UK are living with HIV, but 17% of those HIV positive but undiagnosed with the condition.

There is evidence that these undiagnosed people may be the main source of spreading the disease. Understanding the risk factors can help you prevent becoming infected.

A variety of HIV risk factors can increase your chances of becoming infected with HIV. 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 risk factors

Certain behaviour can increase your HIV risk. These are some of the most common HIV 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-positive.
  • Using needles for piercing or tattooing that are not sterile.

Other possible HIV risk factors

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

  • Having another sexually transmitted infection (STI) such as herpes, chlamydia or gonorrhoea.
  • 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. However since that time it has been UK policy to test all donated blood for HIV. Since 1985 no-one in the UK has caught HIV from a blood transfusion.
  • 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 breast-feeding, these are the most important steps you can take to lower your HIV risk and the risk to others:

  • Use a latex condom each and every time you have anal or vaginal sex.
  • Use a condom or a dental dam every time you have oral sex.
  • Learn more about how to practise safer sex.
  • Don't share needles, syringes or equipment (“works”) 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 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 to prevent contact with others' blood.
  • Talk to a doctor about getting tested for HIV if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. If you're HIV positive, seek counselling and treatment, which can prevent HIV from being passed to a foetus or an infant in most cases.
  • Do not breast-feed if you have a newborn child and are HIV positive.
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on April 25, 2016

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