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Learning About HIV in Children

What is HIV?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system. This is the body's natural defence system.

A child can become infected with HIV if he or she is exposed to the virus. The virus destroys certain white blood cells. If too many are destroyed, the body has trouble fighting off disease.

The last stage of HIV infection is AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). But if your child has HIV, it doesn't mean that he or she has AIDS.

How do children get it?

Children can be exposed to the virus that causes HIV in several ways. If a pregnant woman has HIV, her baby can be exposed before and during birth. The virus can spread through breastfeeding too.

Children also can be exposed by getting stuck with a needle that has the virus on it. Children sometimes find needles on playgrounds, beaches, and other public areas. Children and teens may be infected if they share infected needles.

Sexual contact can also expose children to the virus. This can include being sexually abused by a person who has HIV. Another way is having unprotected sex with a person who has HIV.

How can you prevent it?

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

If you have HIV, don't breastfeed your baby unless your doctor tells you to. And don't pre-chew food for your child.

Teach your child not to touch or play with needles. Show your child what a sharps container looks like. These are containers where people put used medical needles. Teach your child not to reach into one. When you talk with your child about drugs, tell your child to never share needles or syringes with anyone.

When you talk to your child about sex, teach your child to always use a condom when having sex. This includes anal sex.

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 high risk of being infected with HIV are tested as early as possible. These children include:

  • Newborn babies of mothers who had untreated HIV during pregnancy.
  • Children of mothers with HIV.
  • Children who are exposed to HIV after birth.
  • Children who go to the doctor with HIV-like symptoms.

How is it treated?

The treatment for HIV is a mix of medicines. The course of treatment your doctor prescribes depends on several things. These include when and how your child was exposed to the HIV virus and whether or not the virus has already infected your child.

Doctors recommend that babies whose mothers have HIV be treated right away. Even when babies test negative for HIV at birth, they may have been exposed to the virus during the birth. Treatment can keep the baby from getting infected.

If your child has been exposed to HIV after birth, getting treated right away can help prevent the virus from taking hold and spreading in your child's body. This treatment is called post-exposure prevention (PEP).

If your child is already infected with HIV, treatment can reduce the amount of virus in your child's body. It can also help your child stay healthy. This treatment is called antiretroviral therapy (ART). Your child will need to take ART medicines for the rest of their life.

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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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.