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How can you catch HIV?
I’m a guy and I also happen to be gay. I know that HIV is something to be concerned about. But I want to know a little more. How can you catch HIV?
Lisa Oldson, MD on November 23, 2011
You’re asking a great question. And the fact is, gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM) are at greater risk for contracting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In fact, although new HIV infection rates have been decreasing in all other risk groups, new HIV infections for MSM continue to rise. In other words, learning how to protect yourself from HIV is a smart idea.
How can you catch HIV? HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids including semen, blood, vaginal secretions and breast milk. For MSM, HIV risk factors are mostly tied to sex. Health experts include unprotected sex, sex with many people, and sex with people whose HIV status you don’t know among a list of risky sexual behaviors. Also, if you already have another sexually transmitted disease (STD) ⎼ especially STDs that can cause genital sores like syphilis or herpes ⎼ the risk of contracting HIV is greater.
How can you protect yourself from HIV? The surest way to protect yourself from HIV is to only have sex with one partner (with that person having sex with only you), and to make sure that you’ve both tested negative for HIV. If that doesn’t fit your lifestyle or circumstances, using a condom (and plenty of lubricant) any time you have sex, reducing the number of people you have sex with – especially strangers whose HIV status you don’t know – as well as staying in control of your alcohol intake and avoiding drug use.
Getting tested for HIV annually is also a good idea. Why? For one, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend yearly HIV testing for MSM. Annual testing can help identify HIV infections before they do too much damage to the body. And starting HIV treatment before the immune system is drastically affected by HIV infection can help people with HIV stay healthier longer. Still, prevention is the best medicine.
For more on HIV prevention and testing, you can read our Expert Guide to HIV.
Good luck, and thanks so much for writing in.
Dr. Oldson is Medical Director of the Analyte Physicians Group. She is on staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, as well as Clinical Instructor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. Her areas of expertise include STDs (with a particular clinical emphasis on herpes), women's health, preventive medicine, diabetes, obesity and weight management, and mood and anxiety disorders. Dr. Oldson was educated at Rush Medical College and completed her residency at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, IL.