What’s the Risk That I Have Contracted HIV?
Hi, this is Dr. Becky Kuhn. I’m a physician who specializes in HIV/AIDS. Welcome to “What’s the Risk That I Have Contracted HIV?”
People who watch our videos will often submit an email or comment asking what the risk is that they have already contracted HIV. Sometimes they will include a detailed explanation of a recent possible exposure or of a series of possible exposures they may have had over time. For example, they may ask “I recently had unprotected sex with a sex worker. What’s the chance I contracted HIV?” Or they may ask “I recently had unprotected sex with a partner who only told me afterwards that they are HIV positive. What’s the risk that I contracted HIV?” This video is intended to address that type of question.
The simple, honest answer is that there’s no way to reliably estimate what the risk is that a particular individual already has or has not contracted HIV. There are too many variables that play a role and that are difficult or impossible to quantify. Here are some of the kinds of questions you’d need to know the answer to if you were going to try to estimate a person’s risk:
- How many partners has the person had?
- Was each partner unexposed to HIV, recently infected but not yet testing HIV positive, or HIV positive? Remember that you can contract HIV from someone who was recently infected even if they haven’t yet turned HIV positive on HIV tests, and the risk of HIV transmission is actually the highest during this period of time.
- If a partner had HIV, what was their current viral load at the time? A higher viral load increases the risk of HIV transmission. However, it’s important to remember that even if a person’s viral load is low or currently undetectable, they are still infected with HIV; the level of virus in their genital fluids can be higher than the measured level in the blood, particularly if they have another sexually transmitted disease; and they can still transmit HIV.
- What sexual practices did you engage in with each partner and how many times?
- Did either partner have other sexually transmitted diseases? If a partner has another sexually transmitted disease, it is easier for them to either transmit or contract HIV. Sores, blisters, discharges, breaks in the skin, and other common signs of sexually transmitted diseases make it easier for HIV to be transmitted in either direction.
- Was protection like condoms or dental dams used for each sexual exposure?
- What are your other risk factors for HIV like sharing needles?
Even if you knew the answers to all these questions, the most you could do would be to construct a very rough estimate based on adding up the estimated risk of HIV transmission each time a person has sex or shares a needle. It would only be a guess. In reality, either you have already contracted HIV, or you have not. Speculating about your status or trying to estimate the percentage risk that you’ve already contracted HIV won’t help you, your partners, or your loved ones. If you think you may have been exposed to HIV or may have any risk factors, you should get tested for HIV. Follow any instructions your are given for follow-up testing, and definitely make sure to use safer sex practices like condoms or dental dams if you choose to be sexually active in the future.
No matter who you are, you are a valuable individual, and your life matters as do the
lives of those in your community. Take care of yourself and those around you. Get tested so that you know your HIV status, and make healthy choices that eliminate or reduce your risk of contracting HIV. This is Dr. Becky Kuhn.
Script by Eric Krock and Becky Kuhn, M.D.
This script was reviewed and approved for scientific and medical accuracy by Becky Kuhn, M.D. on March 21, 2008.