HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Once someone is infected with HIV the virus will remain in their body for the rest of their life. There is currently no cure for HIV and no vaccine to prevent people from becoming infected. However, drug treatments can help most people with HIV to live much longer and feel well.
HIV can be transmitted in a number of ways. This information is mostly about sexual transmission. It tells you about HIV, what you can do if you are worried that you might have the infection and advice on how to protect yourself.
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HIV is a virus. When someone becomes infected with HIV the virus weakens and damages their body’s defence system (the immune system) so that it cannot fight off infections.
Someone who has HIV is diagnosed as having AIDS only when their immune system cannot cope and they develop one or more particular illnesses. The term AIDS is not used very often now. Late stage or advanced HIV infection is used instead.
HIV can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact, and in a number of other ways. Both men and women can have HIV, and can pass it on. You don’t need to have lots of sexual partners to get HIV or to pass it on.
HIV can be passed on through heterosexual (straight) or homosexual (gay, lesbian) sex. In women who only ever have sex with women the risk of HIV being passed on is very low.
Most people with HIV will look and feel healthy, so you cannot tell who has the virus and you can pass on HIV without knowing you have it. HIV can be passed on even if someone is taking anti-HIV drugs.
HIV is passed from one person to another when the blood, semen, pre-ejaculate (precum), vaginal fluids or breast milk of an infected person enters the body of an uninfected person by:
A woman with HIV can pass the virus to her baby before or during birth, or by breastfeeding. This risk can be reduced by testing and treatment during pregnancy, planing the delivery and avoiding breastfeeding.
The risk of catching HIV from unprotected oral sex is low but it can happen. You are more at risk if:
You cannot get HIV from hugging, kissing, sneezes, coughs, sharing baths or towels, from swimming pools, toilet seats or from sharing cups, plates or cutlery.
You cannot get HIV from any animals or insects, including mosquitoes.
It is now extremely rare to become infected with HIV when receiving healthcare in the UK. In the UK all health professionals – such as dentists, doctors, midwives and nurses – are required to follow infection control procedures when caring for any patient.
Organ donors and blood from blood donors are also tested in the UK to reduce the risk of HIV being transmitted through infected blood, blood products or donated organs.
Some countries do not have the same standards of medical and dental care as the UK, so there may be a risk of getting HIV from infected blood products or unsterile medical equipment if you receive healthcare in another country.
Many people infected with HIV have no signs and symptoms at all. Recent evidence shows that between 70–90% of people who become infected with HIV experience flu-like symptoms within a few weeks after infection.
The most common symptoms are a fever, a rash and a severe sore throat all occurring at the same time. These symptoms in an otherwise healthy person may indicate recent HIV infection.
You can only be certain you have HIV if you have a test. If you or a partner think you might have HIV it is important that you don’t delay seeking advice and getting a test. Even if you don’t have symptoms you may wish to be tested if:
It can take between three weeks and three months after you have been infected with HIV for there to be enough antibodies in your blood to show up on an HIV test.
It is important not to delay getting a test if you think you might have HIV. You can have a test even if you do not have any signs and symptoms.
A test can be carried out a month after possible infection but you may need a follow-up test to confirm these results at a later date.
An HIV test checks your blood for antibodies to HIV. When HIV enters your body, your immune system tries to fight off the infection by producing antibodies to the virus.
Newer types of HIV tests look for part of the HIV virus known as the p24 antigen as well as looking for HIV antibodies. p24 antigen is a protein that is part of HIV which is produced in large quantities when you are first infected with HIV. This can be detected in the blood sooner than HIV antibodies. Tests that look for both antibodies and p24 antigen are known as combined antibody/antigen tests.
Cervical screening tests, routine blood tests and swabs do not detect HIV. If you are not sure whether you have been tested for HIV, just ask.
If the result is HIV negative this means that no HIV antibodies or p24 antigen were found in your blood.
If the result is HIV positive this means that the test has detected HIV antibodies or p24 antigen in your blood. The test will be repeated to confirm the positive result. If both tests are positive this means you have HIV.
The HIV test involves taking a sample of blood (either from your arm or from a finger prick) and looking for HIV antibodies, or antibodies and p24 antigen.
A sample of saliva may be taken if a rapid test is to be carried out. Saliva tests are not carried out routinely in the UK.
An HIV test should only be done with your permission. You should understand what is involved in the test and how it might affect you. Before any testing takes place a doctor, nurse or health adviser should discuss with you:
They may also give you a leaflet to explain some of the things you have discussed. Don’t be frightened to ask questions about anything you are not sure about.
Before you decide to have a test you may wish to talk to someone about the implications that this could have on all aspects of your life and about who might have access to the HIV test result. The doctor, nurse, health adviser or an HIV organisation can help you with this.
This will vary depending on where you had the test done. The doctor, nurse or health adviser will talk to you about when the result will be available.
At most services the result should be available within a week. Some clinics offer same day testing. Not all clinics provide this service and an appointment is usually required.
There are also a small number of clinics that offer rapid testing. This is when you have an HIV test and are given the result in a short space of time (often within 20 minutes). If the result is positive another test will be done to check that the result is correct.
There are a number of services you can go to. Choose the service you feel most comfortable with.
An HIV test can be done at:
Pregnant women attending antenatal services and women attending some gynaecology services will be offered a test.
Injecting drug users may be able to get a test through a local drugs service.
It is possible to buy home sampling kits from the internet – a sample of saliva is sent to the laboratory for analysis. Saliva tests are less reliable than using blood. Selling home tests that do not require laboratory analysis to the general public is illegal in the UK.
No tests are 100 per cent accurate, but HIV tests should pick up almost all HIV infections if they are done at the right time. All positive HIV tests are repeated to confirm the result.
HIV testing is available on the NHS free of charge to anyone. All individuals who are ordinarily resident in the UK are eligible for free NHS treatment for HIV, as are certain categories of overseas visitors (those people not ordinarily resident in the UK).
All asylum seekers are eligible for free NHS treatment. If HIV was diagnosed and treatment begun before any appeal for asylum fails, treatment can continue free of charge for as long as the individual remains in the UK.
For the minority of people for whom treatment is not free, your doctor will advise you.
Once HIV is diagnosed, you will be given a number of tests to monitor the stage of the infection and to show if or when treatment should be started.
People with HIV may be supported and treated by their own doctor or by a specialist at an HIV clinic or a GUM clinic. Services may work together to provide specialist care and support.
At the moment there is no cure for HIV or late stage HIV infection, but there are drugs, known as antiretroviral treatment (ART) or combination therapy, that reduce the level of HIV in the blood and prevent or delay the development of late stage HIV infection. Most people with HIV benefit from these treatments and live longer and have better health than if they had not taken them.
There are also treatments available that can help prevent or treat many of the illnesses that people with HIV are more likely to get.
The treatments for HIV can be difficult to take and they can have unpleasant side effects. Your doctor or specialist can give you full information about treatment options, side effects and long-term effects of treatment. HIV organisations can also this provide information (see Where can I get more information and advice?).
Treatment can be given to help prevent a pregnant woman from passing the virus to her baby (see What happens if I am pregnant and I have HIV?).
If you have had sex with someone in the last three days (72 hours) who is HIV positive or who has a high chance of having HIV then taking a short course of anti-HIV drugs may help to prevent infection. This is known as Post Exposure Prophylaxis or PEP. It involves taking a course of anti-HIV drugs for four weeks. It is more effective the sooner you take it. PEP is usually only recommended if:
PEP may be considered if:
If you are worried that you have been exposed to HIV within the last 72 hours you can go to a GUM clinic, a sexual health clinic or an accident and emergency (A&E) department. The doctor or nurse will ask you some questions and assess whether or not the treatment will be of benefit to you.
Once you are infected with HIV you will remain infected with the virus for the rest of your life, and will be able to pass it to someone else. There is currently no way of curing the virus or removing it from the body.
Every individual will react differently to HIV. If the HIV isn’t monitored carefully and treatment given when necessary, it will cause long-term damage, and this will develop into late stage HIV infection (which can cause death).
The HIV antibody test cannot tell you how long you have had the virus. If you have had more than one sexual partner it can be difficult to know which partner you got HIV from. If you feel upset or angry about having HIV and find it difficult to talk to your partner, family or friends, don’t be afraid to discuss how you feel with the staff at the clinic or general practice, or at a support organisation.
If the test shows that you have HIV then it is very important that your current sexual partner and any other recent partners are also tested. The staff at the clinic or general practice can help you with this, and discuss with you which of your sexual partners may need to be tested.
You may be given a ‘contact slip’ to send or give to your partner(s) or, with your permission, the clinic can do this for you. The slip explains that they may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection and suggests that they go for a check-up. It may or may not say what the infection is. It will not have your name on it, so your confidentiality is protected. This is called partner notification. You are strongly advised to tell your partner(s).
Information about your HIV test (whatever the result) should only be passed to someone else with your permission.
You may be worried that other people may find out that you have HIV when you don’t want them to. Talk to the doctor or nurse if you are concerned about the confidentiality of your results.
There are some circumstances when you might be asked if you have ever had a test, for example when applying for certain jobs, insurance or a mortgage. Nowadays it is more common only to be asked if you have had a positive HIV test or are having treatment for HIV. You can discuss this with a support organisation (see Where can I get more information or advice?).
Many women with HIV are able to become pregnant, and men with HIV can father children.
HIV positive men and women who are planning a pregnancy can get information and advice from an HIV organisation or their doctor or specialist on how to minimise the risk of infecting an HIV negative partner or the baby.
If you have HIV and you are pregnant it is possible for HIV to pass to the baby while you are pregnant, during the birth and when you breastfeed.
During your antenatal care you will be offered an HIV antibody test. If you are HIV positive you can discuss with the doctor or midwife:
You can get further information about HIV and pregnancy from HIV organisations (see Where can I get more information and advice?).
Find out how to get help with your sexual health.
For advice and support on HIV and AIDS contact:
Last updated November 2012. Next update available October 2013.