HIV

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus attacks the immune system, and weakens your ability to fight infections and disease.

HIV is a virus most commonly caught by having sex without a condom.

It can also be passed on by sharing infected needles and other injecting equipment, and from an HIV-positive mother to her child during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding.

There is no cure for HIV, but there are treatments to enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life.

AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection, when your body can no longer fight life-threatening infections. With early diagnosis and effective treatment, most people with HIV will not go on to develop AIDS.

 

How is HIV spread?

HIV is found in the body fluids of an infected person, which includes semen, vaginal and anal fluids, blood and breast milk. It is a fragile virus and does not live very long outside the body. 

HIV cannot be transmitted through sweat or urine.

The most common way of getting HIV in the UK is by anal or vaginal sex without a condom.

Other ways of getting HIV include:

  • using a contaminated needle, syringe or other injecting equipment
  • transmission from mother to baby during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding
  • through oral sex or sharing sex toys (although the risk is significantly lower than for anal and vaginal sex) 

Read more about how is HIV spread

 

Causes of HIV

In the UK, most cases of HIV are caused by having sex without a condom with a person who has HIV.

A person with HIV can pass the virus to others whether or not they have any symptoms. People with HIV are more infectious in the weeks following infection.

HIV treatment significantly reduces the risk of someone with HIV passing it on.

According to the Health Protection Agency, 95% of people diagnosed with HIV in the UK in 2011 acquired HIV through sexual contact.

The main routes of transmission are unprotected vaginal and anal sex. It is also possible to catch HIV through unprotected oral sex, but the risk is much lower.

The risk of HIV transmission through oral sex will be higher if the person giving oral sex has mouth ulcers, sores or bleeding gums and/or if the person receiving oral sex has been recently infected with HIV (and has a lot of the virus in their body) or another sexually transmitted infection.

The type of sex also makes a difference to the level of risk:

  • performing oral sex on a man with HIV carries some risk, particularly if he ejaculates (comes) in your mouth
  • it is possible to catch HIV by performing oral sex on a woman with HIV, particularly if she is having a period, although this is considered to be extremely low risk
  • receiving oral sex from someone who has HIV is also extremely low risk as HIV is not transmitted through saliva

Other ways of getting HIV include:

  • healthcare workers accidentally pricking themselves with an infected needle (this risk is extremely low)
  • blood transfusion (now very rare in the UK, but still a problem in developing countries)

How common is HIV?

At the end of 2012, there were an estimated 98,400 people in the UK living with HIV. The majority were infected through sex (41,000 gay and bisexual men and 53,000 heterosexuals).

More than 1 in 5 people with HIV (over 20,000) do not know they are infected.

Around 1 in every 650 people in the UK has HIV but the two groups with highest rates of HIV are gay and bisexual men and African men and women, where the rates are approximately 1 in 20 and 1 in 25 respectively.

The World Health Organization estimates that around 34 million people in the world are living with HIV.

The virus is particularly widespread in sub-Saharan African countries, such as South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

 

Symptoms of HIV

Most people who are infected with HIV experience a short, flu-like illness that occurs two to six weeks after infection. After this, HIV often causes no symptoms for several years.

The flu-like illness that often occurs a few weeks after HIV infection is also known as seroconversion illness. It's estimated that up to 80% of people who are infected with HIV experience this illness.

The most common symptoms are:

  • fever (raised temperature)
  • sore throat
  • body rash

Other symptoms can include:
  • tiredness
  • joint pain
  • muscle pain
  • swollen glands (nodes)

Read more information about Getting tested

Stages of HIV infection

 

Living with HIV

Although there is no cure for HIV, treatmentsare now very effective, enabling people with HIV to live long and healthy lives.

Medication, known as antiretrovirals, works by slowing down the damage the virus does to the immune system. These medicines come in the form of tablets, which need to be taken every day.

You will be encouraged to take regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, stop smoking and have yearly flu jabs and five-yearly pneumococcal vaccinations to minimise the risk of getting serious illnesses.

Without treatment, a person with HIV's immune system will become seriously damaged and they will develop life-threatening illnesses such as cancer. This is known as late-stage HIV infection or AIDS.

Read more about Living with HIV

HIV and AIDS - Treatment

There is no cure for HIV, but there are treatments to enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life.

Emergency HIV Drugs

Antiretroviral Drugs

Pregnancy

Missing a dose

Side effects

Preventing HIV

Anyone who has sex without a condom or shares needles is at risk of HIV infection.

The best way to prevent HIV is to use a condom for sex and to never share needles or other injecting equipment (including syringes, spoons and swabs).

Read more information about: Preventing HIV

 

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