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The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks and weakens the immune system. The infected person is then affected by various other diseases and infections. In time, if the HIV infection is not treated, it can develop into AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). 

People who get HIV are infected for life. 


Some people infected with HIV do not have symptoms. Others may have symptoms but not realize they are associated to an HIV infection. A person may be infected without knowing it.

When a person has symptoms, they appear 2 to 4 weeks after infection. 

Symptoms of an HIV infection can include the following: 

  • Symptoms similar to those of the flu:
    • Fever 
    • Headache or sore throat 
    • Muscle or joint pain
  • Swelling of glands in the neck, armpits or groin
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Rashes on the torso or face 
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea 
  • Significant weight loss 

These symptoms usually go away without treatment after 1 to 3 weeks. However, the virus stays in the person’s body. It can be spread and lead to complications. 

When to consult

Consult a health-care professional or call Info-Santé 811 if you have symptoms or if you have taken part in 'at risk' behaviours, such as:

  • Having unprotected sex
  • Sharing paraphernalia used to prepare, inject or inhale drugs
  • Getting tattooed or pierced with non-sterile equipment


There is no treatment to cure HIV infection. The virus stays in the person’s body for life. Medication and appropriate medical care help control the virus and limit the severity of the infection. 

Nowadays, people living with HIV and who have good medical care can expect to live as well and as long as the general population.

Inform partners

People with HIV should notify their sex and drug partners as quickly as possible. This way, their partners: 

  • Can be tested, evaluated quickly, receive appropriate treatment and avoid complications
  • Can avoid spreading infections to other people

Infected people must inquire about the legal obligation they have to disclose their HIV status. It is recommended that they discuss this with a health-care professional. They can also communicate with HIV information and legal support services provided by the Coalition des organismes communautaires québécois de lutte contre le sida (COCQ-sida):


If after a few years a person does not receive medical treatment and care, the HIV weakens his or her immune system. This can lead to serious problems, including certain cancers and infections of the lungs, eyes and brain. 

The HIV infection eventually develops into AIDS. At this stage, the immune system is defenceless and complications from the infection can lead to serious consequences, including death.


An infected person can spread HIV even if he or she does not have symptoms. The risk of catching or spreading HIV increases if the person has another sexually transmitted and blood borne infection (STBBI).

HIV is spread through sexual contact and through contact with infected blood. 

Sexual transmission can happen during:

  • Vaginal sex (penetration of the vagina with the penis)
  • Anal sex (penetration of the anus with the penis)
  • Oral sex (contact of the mouth with the penis, vulva or vagina)
  • Sharing of sex toys

However, transmission of HIV during oral sex is rare.

Sexual transmission can occur in the absence of orgasm or ejaculation.

Transmission through blood can occur during:

  • Sharing of paraphernalia used to prepare, inject or inhale drugs
  • Tattooing or piercing with non-sterile equipment 
  • Contact between a liquid contaminated by blood and: 
    • Damaged skin surface
    • Mucous membranes such as linings of the mouth or female and male genitals
  • Blood transfusions where safety measures are not applied (they are applied in Canada)

An infected mother can also pass on the infection to her baby during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding. For further information, read the Sexually Transmitted and Blood-borne Infections (STBBIs) and Pregnancy page.

HIV is not spread through daily activities. The following acts present no risk:

  • Shaking hands with someone HIV-positive
  • Kissing that person on the cheek
  • Using the same toilet seat as him or her
  • Swimming in the same pool
  • Etc. 

Protection and prevention


There is no vaccine to protect against HIV.

Sexual protection

For the best protection against HIV, use a condom:

  • During all contact between genital organs
  • During the entire course of oral, vaginal or anal sex
  • With each sexual encounter

The use of a sheet of latex to cover the vulva or anus during oral sex lowers the risk of spreading HIV. It helps prevent direct contact between the mouth and the genitals. A sheet of latex can be made by unrolling a condom, cutting off both ends and then cutting it lengthwise.

Sex toys should not be shared. People who share sex toys can lower the risk of spreading HIV by covering them with a condom. They must change condoms after each partner.

Antiviral drugs 

Under certain conditions, taking antiviral drugs may reduce the risk of catching or spreading HIV. The following people can discuss options available to them with a health-care professional: 

  • People living with HIV
  • People at high risk of catching HIV

Preparation and use of drugs 

The use of new paraphernalia for the preparation, injection and inhalation of drugs lowers the risk of catching HIV through blood. 

Never share drug paraphernalia. To know the location of distribution points for drug injecting material, call Info-Santé 811. 

Tattoos and piercings 

Tattoo artists and piercers must use new, disposable or sterilized material. Such precaution lowers the risk of catching or spreading HIV. This includes razors, needles, blades, bottles and inks, as well as everything that comes into contact with the skin or blood. Tattoo artists and piercers must also wash their hands and wear gloves. 


A person must get tested for HIV if he or she has taken part in 'at risk' behaviours, such as:

  • Having unprotected sex
  • Sharing paraphernalia used to prepare, inject or inhale drugs
  • Getting tattooed or pierced with non-sterile equipment

This way, he or she can prevent complications and avoid spreading HIV to other people.  

A blood test can detect if you have HIV. 

In some CLSCs, it is possible to be tested for HIV anonymously, without having to show your health insurance card. 

To be tested, consult a health-care professional or call Info-Santé 811.

In case of contact with an infected person’s blood, sperm or vaginal secretions 

If you have come into contact with the blood, sperm or vaginal secretions of a person who could be infected with HIV, consult a health-care professional or call Info-Santé 811 immediately. 

You may have to receive preventive treatment to protect you from catching HIV. This treatment is called “post-exposure prophylaxis”. Ideally, it must be administered within 72 hours of contact. 

Last update: March 9, 2017


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