What is HIV, how it is transmitted and what are its effects on the human body? We have a range of information on HIV testing, treatment, side effects as well as advice on living with HIV.
What are HIV and AIDS?
HIV and AIDS are not exactly the same. Find what these terms really mean.
How common is HIV?
HIV is the fastest growing serious health condition in the UK. Get the facts.
How is HIV transmitted
How HIV can be passed on, how it can't, and how to reduce the risks.
Sign and Symptoms
What are the short and long term symptoms of HIV and AIDS?
Testing For HIV
For all you need to know about HIV tests to help you decide whether to have one, and when.
How treatment works, possible side effects and advice on sticking to an effective routine.
Post Exposure Prophylaxis
Immediate treatment with anti-HIV drugs to reduce the chance of becoming infected.
What are HIV and AIDS?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
HIV infects and gradually destroys a person's Immune system. The immune system is the organ in the body that protects and reduces infections and cancers.
Someone living with HIV may show no signs or symptoms of HIV infection as their immune system manages to control it. In most cases their immune system will need help from anti-HIV drugs to keep the HIV infection under control. The drugs do not completely rid the body of HIV infection.
More information is available on the signs and symptoms page.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
AIDS is not a single disease or condition. Instead, it is a term that describes the point when a person's immune system can no longer cope because of the damage caused by HIV and they start to get one or more specific illnesses.
People do not die of AIDS, they die from the cancers, pneumonia or other conditions that may take hold when their immune system has been weakened by HIV
How common is HIV?
HIV in the UK
HIV can affect anybody, regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, disability, culture and background, but in the UK most people with HIV come from two groups:
- Men who have sex with men
- People from sub-Saharan African origin
Gay men are the group most affected by HIV in the UK. However, since 2003 more people newly diagnosed with HIV in the UK became infected through heterosexual sex than gay sex. The majority of these became infected with HIV when they were abroad.
Although these groups are high, other people are infected and living with HIV. 1,800 people infected through injecting drugs, over 1,000 children have HIV passed on from their mothers and around 700 people are infected through blood transfusions and blood products.
The Health Protection Agency estimates about 30% of people in the UK living with HIV do not know that they have become infected.
HIV around the world
The joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has estimated that there are up to 40 million people living with HIV in the world. 70% of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.
The three most affected countries, Botswana, Swaziland and Zimbabwe - one in three people is living with the virus. There is no country outside Africa where more than one in 20 people is living with the virus.
How HIV is transmitted?
HIV is not passed on easily from person to another. The HIV virus is in body fluids. For the HIV to be passed on, the body fluids of someone who is already infected has to get into an uninfected persons body and then into their bloodstream.
The body fluids that contain enough HIV to infect someone are:
- Seminal fluid (cum, semen)
- Vaginal Fluids, including menstrual fluids
- Breast milk
Other body fluids, like saliva, sweat or urine, do not contain enough of the HIV virus to infect another person.
The main ways that HIV can be transmitted are:
- Through sexual intercourse such as anal and vaginal sex
- From mother to baby
- From blood to blood
It is important to understand you cannot get infected with the HIV virus from a range of social contact such as touching, kissing, hugging and others.
Signs and symptoms
The first symptoms of HIV can appear within six weeks of infection but after a few weeks they usually disappear. After this many people have no symptoms.
HIV affects the ability of your body's immune system to fight infection. If the HIV is left untreated, it will destroy a type of white blood cell called CD4 T-cells, which are important in your immune system.
The numbers of CD4 blood cells that you have in your body are called CD4 count. The lower the CD4 count the more likely you are to show signs of illness. However a low CD4 count is not an illness itself. Some people are well when their CD4 count is low, at least for a while. Other people with HIV may have symptoms before their CD4 count is lowered.
What to look out for
Common symptoms of HIV infection, especially as your CD4 count gets lower, can be:
- Unintentional weight loss
- Chronic diarrhoea
- Skin rashes, on your face, genitals or anus
- Increase in herpes ulcers or thrush infections
in your mouth and genitals
- Sweats, more often at night
- Unusual tiredness
- Nausea or loss of appetite
- Swelling of glands in the neck, groin or armpits
These symptoms can all be caused by other infections or conditions other than HIV, and do not mean you have AIDS. If you experience all or some of the symptoms above regularly, it may be a good idea to think about getting a HIV test, especially if you thing you may have been at risk of HIV infection. Details of your nearest sexual health clinic (GU clinic) are on this website.
Testing for HIV
If you think you have been exposed to HIV, you will need to deicide whether to have a HIV test. This is an important decision that you should take as soon as possible.
What is an HIV test?
You can find out if you have been infected with HIV by having a blood test. The test does not look for the virus itself but for antibodies to the virus. Antibodies are made in your blood when an infection has got into your body.
When should I get an HIV test done?
It can take up to 3 months after infection with HIV before the antibodies show up in your blood. The 3 months are called the window period. A test done before these 3 months are up is not accurate, because a blood test may find no antibodies and so it will show no HIV infection, but you may still have the HIV virus in you body.
Results of the test
If you have a test 3 months after you've run the risk of getting HIV and no antibodies are found the result will be negative, you are certain not to have HIV. This negative result does not mean you are immune to HIV. If you continue to take risks you could be infected with HIV and will need to consider taking another HIV test. Having a test does not protect you from getting HIV.
If antibodies to HIV are present in you blood stream, then you will have a positive result which means you have HIV. Having the virus means you are more likely to pass it on to other people through unprotected sex, giving blood or sharing needles if you inject drugs. If you engaged in any of the above during the time between getting HIV and having the test you may have passed on the virus to others. If this is the case you should tell those involved so that they can get a HIV test.
To make sure no-one is given the incorrect result, a positive result is only given after the blood has been tested many times. A HIV test is very reliable.
Where can I get an HIV test?
HIV tests can be done at the following places:
- Genitor-urinary medicine (GUM) clinic
(see GUM page on this website)
- Family doctor (GP)
- Private clinic
- More support and information
If you have concerns about going for a HIV test, and would like to talk about:
The good and not so good things about testing What to expect when you go for a test Reading resources
Trade is here to support you at any time during your choice for an HIV test, contact us on the phone or drop in to see us anytime during office hours.
There is no cure for HIV, however there are drugs that can stop HIV reproducing and can drive down the amount of the virus in your body to very low levels.
A combination of three or more drugs can stop HIV from reproducing and allow your immune system to recover. Three or more drugs are needed to be effective.
The aim of the treatment is to reduce the quantity of the virus, although it won't completely disappear.
There are now a number of anti-HIV drugs for doctors to use in combination therapy.
Many people experience short term side effects when they begin to take the drugs. This usually improves after a few weeks. Any long-term side effects will be monitored by your doctor or clinic and dealt with as soon as possible.
If you experience ongoing side effects from taking anti-HIV drugs you should see your doctor immediately.
PEP stands for Post Exposure Prophylaxis; it's a treatment that may prevent HIV infection after the virus has entered the body.
Here are some things to consider when you're thinking about PEP:
- It could stop someone getting HIV
- It involves taking anti-HIV drugs for 4 weeks
- It must be started as soon as possible after unsafe sex, or a condom not working - and definitely within 72 hours (3 days)
- There are side effects
- PEP isn't guaranteed to work
PEP is a course of anti-HIV medication that needs to be taken daily over the course of a month. The drugs have been available for HIV-prevention since the early to mid 1990s for health workers who have had needle stick or similar injuries.
More recently PEP has been made available under strict prescribing guidelines to people who might have been exposed to HIV during sex. If you think you might have exposed yourself to HIV during sex it might be worth thinking a bit more about how HIV is transmitted - there is more information about HIV on this website.
For the treatment to be effective, it needs to be started within 72 hours of exposure. It can cause severe side effects such as diarrhoea, nausea and prolonged headaches.
PEP can be available from sexual health clinics and hospital accident and emergency departments.
New guidelines have been given to Sexual Health Clinics and hospitals that help doctors decide if PEP should be given. A doctor will need to ask questions about what kind of sex happened, when and who with. The doctor/hospital will decide if they can prescribe you PEP providing you meet the guidelines.
PEP is not a cure for HIV and is not guaranteed to prevent HIV from taking hold once the virus has entered the body. Condoms and lube for sex remain the most efficient way of staying safe from HIV.
For more information on PEP contact the Trade office to request a PEP booklet.