What is HIV?

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), is a virus that attacks the immune system and weakens the body’s ability to fight other infections.

The virus is found in blood, semen and vaginal fluid of those infected. HIV cannot currently be cured but there is an effective treatment available to help people infected with HIV to live long and healthy lives.

If left untreated, HIV can damage a person’s immune system such that the body cannot fight off infections. This is known as late stage HIV (or AIDs). With early diagnosis and effective treatment, most people with HIV will not go on to develop AIDS.

Listen to an expert give their advice on who’s at risk, where to get tested and what the treatment involves.

What are the symptoms?

About 70-90% of people living with HIV have no symptoms and carry the infection without knowing. This is why it is important to test frequently, especially if you change partners.

Some people experience flu-like symptoms when they are first infected (2-6 weeks after) including fever, night sweats, rash,  muscle aches and loss of appetite. These symptoms get better after a couple of weeks but the infection will remain. After this period, those who do have symptoms of HIV may experience the following:

  • Unexplainable weight loss
  • Persistent diarrhoea (more than six months)
  • Night sweats
  • Pneumonia
  • Skin problems
  • Recurrent infections (especially things like shingles)
  • Tiredness

If you are experiencing one or more of the symptoms listed above and you think you may have been exposed to HIV you should get tested as soon as possible.

How do you catch it?

HIV is found in the body fluids of an infected person. This includes semen (cum), vaginal and anal fluids, blood, and breast milk. It is a fragile virus and does not survive outside the body for long.

HIV is most commonly caught through sex without a condom (anal, vaginal or oral) and through blood-to-blood and/or genital-to-genital sexual contact with someone who is infected. This includes sharing sex toys that aren’t washed or covered with a new condom each time they’re used, sharing drug injecting equipment and bleeding gums if having oral sex.

It can also be passed on from an infected mother to her baby before and during childbirth, or by breastfeeding. Early treatment of a mother’s HIV dramatically reduces this risk.

HIV cannot be transmitted through sweat or urine, and you cannot get HIV through kissing, hugging, sharing baths, towels, cups and cutlery, swimming pools or toilet seats.

How do you prevent it?

If you’re sexually active, the best way to prevent HIV is to use condoms for all sexual contact and to never share drug-injecting equipment, such as needles and syringes, or sex toys. There is currently no vaccine for HIV.

If you or your partner(s) have symptoms or have been exposed to HIV, stop all sexual contact until you have the all clear.

How do you get tested?

An HIV is done using blood or saliva with a blood test being most common.  This may be repeated to confirm your result because of the delay in someone catching HIV and the test showing up as positive.

Depending on your eligibility, you may be able to get a free self-sampling HIV test to do at home. It is also possible to pay for other at-home HIV testing kits. However, the accuracy of these vary so if you do decide to use one of these tests, we advise that you speak to your local pharmacist or GP.

If you test positive, don’t panic. There are treatments available for HIV and you will be put in contact with your local HIV to explain what this means, do further tests to find out more about your infection and help you manage the condition. They will also help you to identify anyone else who may have been at risk so they can get tested. It is important not to have sex without a condom with anyone, even a regular partner, or to share injecting equipment as you may pass the virus onto others.

If you think that you may have been infected with HIV you can visit any NHS sexual health service, including those run by Virgin Care, visit your GP and get tests at some young people’s centres like those run by Brook.

What treatment is available?

There is currently no cure for HIV. But there is an effective treatment available which helps people with HIV to live long and healthy lives and to avoid passing HIV on to others.

Watch this video to see how Mick has dealt with having HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C for over 25 years.

Treatment is offered to everyone infected with HIV but it is your decision whether and when this is right for you. The HIV team will explain what treatment involves and it can be as simple as taking a pill once a day. People who are stable and well with treatment generally only attend the HIV clinic once or twice a year to monitor the condition.

If you have a high risk of being are exposed to HIV but are not yet infected, you may want to consider taking medication to help stop HIV getting into your system. This medication is known as Post Exposure Prophylaxis or PEPSE. It needs to be started within 72 hours of the risk of exposure and is usually taken for a month. If you think you might need PEPSE, contact your local sexual health clinic or urgent care centre/A&E if out of hours. A doctor or nurse will assess your health and level of risk, and give you PEPSE if it is right for you.

Useful links

  • Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) is a charity offering a huge range of information, advice, support and signposting around HIV. They have a great section on their website “about HIV” as well as “living with HIV”. You can call them on 0808 802 1221
  • NAM aims to change lives by sharing information about HIV and AIDS. It has a wealth of information and resources online
  • NHS Choices has lots of information about STIs including a specific page on HIV and Aids
  • Brook has more information and advice on STIs on their website written for people under 25 including a page on HIV
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