Between 40,000 and 50,000 Americans become infected with HIV every year. Half of them are between the ages of 13 and 24. That means at least two teenagers and young adults in this country are infected with HIV every hour of every day.
People infected with HIV carry the virus in their body fluids, including blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk. The virus can spread only if these HIV-infected fluids enter the bloodstream of another person. This can take place (1) through the linings of the vagina, rectum, mouth, or the opening at the tip of the penis; (2) through intravenous injection with a syringe; or (3) through a break in the skin, such as a cut or sore. The most common ways that people become HIV-infected are:
There are close to one million Americans living with HIV/AIDS. Roughly 25% of them became infected when they were teenagers, and the rate of infection among young people is rising.
Some people develop mild, temporary flu-like symptoms or persistent swollen glands immediately after becoming HIV-infected. But even if you look and feel healthy, you may be infected. If you think there's a chance you may have been exposed to HIV, you should get tested as soon as possible.
Most HIV tests involve taking a blood sample, and you can get tested by your doctor, at local health department clinics, or at hospitals. In addition, many states offer anonymous HIV testing. It's important to get tested at a place that provides counseling, because counselors can help you understand what your test results mean, answer questions about how to protect yourself and others, and refer you to local HIV-related resources.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a 24-hour toll-free hotline to answer questions about HIV testing and refer you to testing sites in your area. The number is:
1-888-232-6348 (TTY/deaf access)
Most young people who are HIV-infected don't know it, which means they can't take important steps to protect other people or to get the medical care they need.
HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). When HIV infects someone, the virus enters the body and begins to multiply and attack immune cells that normally protect us from disease. Eventually the body's immune system breaks down and is unable to fight off so-called "opportunistic infections" and other illnesses, ranging from pneumonia and cancer to blindness and dementia. It's only when someone with HIV begins to experience these specific infections and illnesses that they're diagnosed with AIDS.
You can't tell if someone has HIV or AIDS by looking. An infected person can appear completely healthy. But anyone infected with HIV can infect other people, even if no symptoms are present.
If you're not sexually active, you've already eliminated the most common cause of HIV infection among teens. But if you have made the decision to have sexual intercourse (or oral sex), you need to protect yourself.
The rules are simple. First, whenever you have sexual intercourse (or oral sex), practice safer sex by using a condom or dental dam (a square of latex recommended for use during oral-genital and oral-anal sex). When used properly and consistently, condoms are close to 99% effective in preventing transmission of HIV. But remember:
Practicing safer sex will also help you avoid other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), many of which can increase your risk of contracting HIV or giving it to someone else.
Recent studies show that 26% of sexually active teenagers think it's impossible to get HIV through oral sex, and 15% more don't know whether people can contract HIV this way. The truth: it is possible.
While it's much easier to contract HIV through unprotected vaginal or anal sex, unprotected oral sex is not a safe substitute. If you choose to perform or receive oral sex -- whether your partner is male or female -- it's crucial that you guard against the transmission of HIV. Here's how:
These methods provide a physical barrier to HIV transmission and also will help keep you safe from other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), many of which can increase your risk of contracting HIV or giving it to someone else.
HIV/AIDS doesn't discriminate. That means that anyone who engages in risk behavior can become infected with HIV. But the epidemic has taken an especially heavy toll on some groups of young people, especially African American and Latino youth, young women, and young men who have sex with men (whether or not they identify themselves as gay).
But remember, it's not who you are, but what you do that determines whether you can become infected with HIV.
Health experts estimate that at least 20,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 24 become HIV-infected every year. But a lot of young people still don't think they're personally at risk. At the same time, the success of new HIV/AIDS treatments has made some people think they don't need to protect themselves -- a mistake that can have tragic results.
See "Keeping Count" for more info on the impact of HIV on specific groups of young people.
AIDS is still a fatal disease for which there is no cure and no vaccine. New medications are helping many people with HIV/AIDS live longer, healthier lives, but the combination or "cocktail" treatments don't work for everyone. They're very expensive and often cause serious side effects. And because HIV mutates (or changes its genetic structure) constantly, the virus often develops resistance, and the medications become ineffective. In the U.S., 10% to 20% of people newly infected with HIV are acquiring strains of the virus that don't respond to the best available treatments. The bottom line? Don't have sex without a condom.
HIV/AIDS isn't the only sexually transmitted disease (STD) young people have to worry about. There's a virtual alphabet soup of STDs floating around out there, including chlamydia, genital warts, gonorrhea, herpes, and syphilis. Three million teenagers contract STDs each year. That's about one out of every four teens who are sexually active.
Having a sexually transmitted disease (STD) can increase your risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV. This is true whether you have open sores or breaks in the skin (as with syphilis, herpes, and chancroid) or not (as with chlamydia and gonorrhea). Where there are breaks in the skin, HIV can enter and exit the body more easily. But even when there are no breaks in the skin, STDs can cause biological changes that may make HIV transmission more likely. Studies show that people with HIV who are infected with another STD are three to five times more likely to contract or transmit the virus through sexual contact. What to do? Practice safer sex.
Most young people recognize that HIV/AIDS is a serious social problem, but a recent survey found that over two-thirds wouldn't know where to get tested.
Some people develop mild, temporary flu-like symptoms or persistent swollen glands immediately after becoming HIV-infected. But even if you look and feel healthy, you may be infected. If you think there's any chance you may have been exposed to HIV, you should get tested as soon as possible.
Most HIV tests involve taking a blood sample, and you can get tested by your doctor, at local health department clinics, or at hospitals. In addition, many states offer anonymous HIV testing. It's important to get tested at a place that provides counseling, because counselors can help you understand what your test results mean, answer questions about how to protect yourself and others, and refer you to local HIV-related resources. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a 24-hour toll-free hotline to answer questions about HIV testing and refer you to testing sites in your area (see above).
Even in the early stages of HIV infection, you can take concrete steps to protect your long-term health. Beginning medical care before you begin to get sick may give you many more years of healthy life than you otherwise would have. And, of course, knowing you're HIV-positive will allow you to take the necessary precautions to prevent others from becoming infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a 24-hour toll-free hotline to answer questions about HIV testing and refer you to testing sites in your area (see above).
HIV is scary stuff. There is still no cure and no vaccine to prevent AIDS. Thankfully, the virus that causes AIDS isn't easy to pass from one person to another.
HIV is not an easy virus to pass from one person to another. It is not transmitted through food or air (for instance, by coughing or sneezing). There has never been a case where a person was infected by a household member, relative, co-worker, or friend through casual or everyday contact such as sharing eating utensils and bathroom facilities or hugging and kissing. (Most scientists agree that while HIV transmission through deep or prolonged "French" kissing might be possible, it's extremely unlikely.)
Mosquitos, fleas, and other insects do not transmit HIV. In the U.S., screening the blood supply for HIV has virtually eliminated the risk of infection through blood transfusions, and you can't get HIV from giving blood at a blood bank or other established blood collection center. Sweat, tears, vomit, feces, and urine do contain HIV, but have not been reported to transmit the disease (apart from two cases involving transmission from fecal matter via cut skin).
The bottom line is that you should treat someone with HIV or AIDS the same as anyone else. In fact, they need your friendship and support more than ever. Just think how you would feel in their place.