AIDS - Risks

Describe any behaviors that put you at risk of developing HIV/AIDS.

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What are risk factors for AIDS?

Because AIDS is caused by HIV, the risk factors for developing AIDS are the same as for HIV. Specifically, behaviors that result in contact with infected blood or sexual secretions pose the main risk of HIV transmission. These behaviors include sexual intercourse and injection drug use. The presence of sores in the genital area, like those caused by herpes, makes it easier for the virus to pass from person to person during intercourse. HIV also has been spread to health care workers through accidental sticks with needles contaminated with blood from HIV-infected people, or when broken skin has come into contact with infected blood or secretions. Blood products used for transfusions or injections also may spread infection, although this has become extremely rare (less than one in 2 million transfusions in the U.S.) due to testing of blood donors and blood supplies for HIV. Finally, infants may acquire HIV from an infected mother either while they are in the womb, during birth, or by breastfeeding after birth.

The risk that HIV infection will progress to AIDS increases with the number of years since the infection was acquired. If the HIV infection is untreated, 50% of people will develop AIDS within 10 years. This time is shortened if the person already has a weak immune system or if HIV was acquired through transfusion. Of people with HIV, the risk of progressing to AIDS is increased if there is evidence that the immune system is weakening as shown by falling levels of CD4 cells or if the virus is reproducing rapidly as shown by a high number of viral particles in the blood (high viral load).

Antiretroviral, or anti-HIV, treatment substantially reduces the risk that HIV will progress to AIDS. In developed countries, use of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) has turned HIV into a chronic disease that may never progress to AIDS. Conversely, if infected people are not able to take their medications or have a virus that has developed resistance to several medications, they are at increased risk for progression to AIDS. If AIDS is not treated, 50% of people will die within nine months of the diagnosis.

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