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Learning About HIV in Children

What is HIV?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system, the body's natural defence system. If a child becomes infected, the virus destroys certain white blood cells. If too many are destroyed, the child's body has trouble fighting off disease.

The most severe stage of HIV infection is AIDS. Most of the time, treatment can prevent AIDS and help children who have HIV live long, healthy lives.

How do children get it?

Almost all children who have HIV got exposed to the virus during pregnancy or birth. The virus can spread through breastfeeding too. Older children and teens may get infected by having unprotected sex with someone who has HIV. Another way is by sharing infected needles while using drugs or steroids.

How can you prevent it?

There are steps you can take to help protect your child from HIV.

  • If you have HIV and are pregnant, you will be treated during pregnancy, and your baby will be given antiviral medicines after birth. This usually prevents HIV.
  • If you have HIV and would like to breastfeed your baby, talk to your doctor. How safe it is depends on how well your HIV is controlled. And don't pre-chew food for your child.
  • If your child was exposed to HIV through sexual contact or by sharing needles, your child can take medicine called post-exposure prevention (PEP). Getting treated right away can help prevent the virus from taking hold and spreading in your child's body.
  • If your older child or teen is at higher risk for HIV because they're having sex without condoms or are sharing needles, they can take medicine to prevent it. This is called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is very good at preventing HIV when it's taken as prescribed.

As your child grows up, talk about how to prevent HIV. Explain how HIV is spread. In older children and teens, it's usually spread through unprotected sex or by sharing needles. Teach your child to:

  • Always use a condom when having sex. This includes anal sex. And avoid or be careful with alcohol and drugs. Using alcohol or drugs makes it less likely that a person will use a condom.
  • Never share needles, syringes, or other injection supplies.
  • Talk to you or a doctor about PEP and PreP if your child thinks they might be at risk.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of HIV in children can include:

  • Delays in growth or development.
  • An enlarged liver and spleen.
  • A yeast infection of the mouth (thrush) that won't go away.
  • Repeated bacterial infections.
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and groin.

These symptoms also can be caused by other illnesses.

How is it diagnosed?

HIV is diagnosed with blood tests. If the virus is found, the test is positive. If HIV is not found (negative), your child may need a repeat test to be sure the results are correct.

Children who are at risk of being infected with HIV are tested as early as possible. This includes:

  • Babies and children who were exposed to HIV during pregnancy or birth.
  • Children who were exposed to HIV after birth.
  • Children who go to the doctor with HIV-like symptoms.

How is it treated?

HIV is treated with a mix of medicines. The treatment your doctor prescribes depends on a few things. These include when and how your child was exposed to the HIV virus. They also include whether your child is already infected.

If your baby was exposed to HIV during pregnancy or birth, they need to be treated right away. Treatment can keep your baby from getting infected.

If your child is already infected with HIV, they can take medicines called antiretroviral therapy (ART). This treatment can reduce the amount of virus in your child's body. Taking ART medicines for the rest of their life can prevent AIDS and help your child stay healthy.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

Where can you learn more?

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