Information taken from NHS website. January 2019.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages the cells in your immune system and weakens your ability to fight everyday infections and disease.
AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the name used to describe a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that happen when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus.
While AIDS can’t be transmitted from one person to another, the HIV virus can.
There’s currently no cure for HIV, but there are very effective drug treatments that enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life.
With an early diagnosis and effective treatments, most people with HIV won’t develop any AIDS-related illnesses and will live a near-normal lifespan.
Symptoms of HIV infection
Most people experience a short, flu-like illness 2-6 weeks after HIV infection, which lasts for a week or two.
After these symptoms disappear, HIV may not cause any symptoms for many years, although the virus continues to damage your immune system. This means many people with HIV don’t know they’re infected.
Anyone who thinks they could have HIV should get tested. Certain groups of people are advised to have regular tests as they’re at particularly high risk, including:
- men who have sex with men
- Black African heterosexuals
- people who share needles, syringes or other injecting equipment
Causes of HIV infection
HIV is found in the body fluids of an infected person. This includes semen, vaginal and anal fluids, blood, and breast milk.
It’s a fragile virus and doesn’t survive outside the body for long. HIV can’t be transmitted through sweat, urine or saliva.
The most common way of getting HIV in the UK is through having anal or vaginal sex without a condom.
Other ways of getting HIV include:
- sharing needles, syringes or other injecting equipment
- transmission from mother to baby during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding
The chance of getting HIV through oral sex is very low and will be dependent on many things, such as whether you receive or give oral sex and the oral hygiene of the person giving the oral sex.
Seek medical advice as soon as possible if you think you might have been exposed to HIV.
You can get tested in a number of places, including at your GP surgery, sexual health clinics, and clinics run by charities.
The only way to find out if you have HIV is to have an HIV test. This involves testing a sample of your blood or saliva for signs of the infection.
It’s important to be aware that:
- emergency anti-HIV medication called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) may stop you becoming infected if started within 72 hours of possible exposure to the virus – it’s recommended that you start it as soon as possible, ideally within 24 hours
- an early diagnosis means you can start treatment sooner, which can improve your chances of controlling the virus, reduce the risk of becoming more unwell and reduce the chance of passing the virus on to others
Treatment for HIV
Antiretroviral medications are used to treat HIV. They work by stopping the virus replicating in the body, allowing the immune system to repair itself and preventing further damage.
These come in the form of tablets, which need to be taken every day.
HIV is able to develop resistance to a single HIV drug very easily, but taking a combination of different drugs makes this much less likely.
Most people with HIV take a combination of drugs – it’s vital these are taken every day as recommended by your doctor.
The goal of HIV treatment is to have an undetectable viral load. This means the level of HIV virus in your body is low enough to not be detected by a test.
Anyone who has sex without a condom or shares needles is at risk of HIV infection.
There are many effective ways to prevent or reduce the risk of HIV infection, including:
- using a condom for sex
- post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP)
- pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)
- treatment for HIV to reduce the viral load to undetectable
- if you use drugs, never sharing needles or other injecting equipment, including syringes, spoons and swabs