Here’s why teens and young adults should take steps to protect themselves from HIV.
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which attacks the immune system and can cause AIDS if not treated, may not be top of mind for many people these days. But it is still possible to get HIV – and you might be surprised to know you can get HIV no matter your age, sex, race or sexual orientation.
Teens and young adults should especially be aware of HIV – including how it spreads and how to prevent the spread – because behaviors common to these age groups make them more vulnerable to getting the disease. Unprotected sex, sex with multiple partners (which makes it more likely a partner may have HIV) and sharing needles all increase the risk of acquiring HIV. That’s because the virus spreads when an infected person’s bodily fluids, such as blood, semen or vaginal fluid, get into another person’s body.
In 2018, over 20% of new HIV cases in the U.S. were diagnosed in people ages 13 to 24. “Baton Rouge also remains one of the leading cities of HIV infected individuals per capita.”, says Baton Rouge Clinic Pediatrician, Dr. Stephanie M. Kelleher . Youth are the least likely group to be aware that they are infected with HIV compared to any other age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People who don’t know they are HIV-positive, and therefore don’t take medication to treat the virus so their viral load becomes undetectable, can spread the virus to others.
Early symptoms of HIV often feel like the flu and stick around for less than a month. Some people have no symptoms at all. In fact, you can have HIV for years before having any symptoms. If you think you may have HIV, here are tips to avoid spreading it to others:
- Get tested. This is the best way to know your HIV status. If you test positive, let current and past sexual partners know so they can get tested, too.
- Commit to treatment. Following a prescribed HIV treatment plan can lower your viral load to a point where it’s considered undetectable. When this happens, you can’t infect others. Medication to lower your viral load also keeps you healthier and helps prevent HIV from developing into AIDS.
Protecting yourself against HIV is something you have control over. Here’s how you can lower your risk of infection:
- Don’t have sex. This is the surest way of preventing any sexually transmitted infection (STI), including HIV. Your risk of getting HIV is much lower during oral sex than during vaginal or anal sex. HIV does not spread through saliva, tears, sweat or through touching, like hugging or holding hands.
- Use a condom correctly every time you’re sexually active. If you have sex, use an external (male) condom, internal (female) condom or a dental dam. Use only water-based lubricants, since oil-based ones can make condoms break. Condoms also help prevent other STIs and pregnancy.
- Always use a clean needle. If you inject drugs, never share needles. Check if your area has a needle-exchange program. Even better, don’t use drugs or alcohol, since you’re more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior, like having unprotected sex, if you’re drunk or high. Talk with your doctor or a counselor about options for treating substance use.
- Take preventive medicines if you’re at high risk for HIV. There are medications you can take, referred to as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), if you’re at high risk for HIV. For example, you’re considered high risk if your partner is HIV-positive.
- Take medication right away after possible exposure to HIV. Medication referred to as PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) can be taken within 72 hours if you think you’ve been exposed to the virus. This should only be used in emergency situations.
If you’re concerned you may be HIV-positive, have questions about symptoms or want more information about how to protect yourself from the virus, visit:
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Date Last Reviewed: February 17, 2021
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD