HIV is as serious as ever but over the last 10 years, treatments have greatly improved.
What is HIV?

Human Immunoinsufficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that is passed from partner to partner via blood or body fluid transmission. You can get it from vaginal,anal or oral sex as well as mother to baby either through breast milk or birth.

What's the difference between HIV and AIDs?

HIV is the virus you can catch from a partner and it causes Acquired Immuno Deficieny Syndrome (AIDs). AIDs is defined by certain infections and cancers that happen more often in people with HIV.

What are the main symptoms?
  • This depends on the stage at which the infection is diagnosed and how soon treatment is started. There are usually no symptoms in the early stages besides a mild fever soon after infection. In fact, you can be HIV positive for many years without symptoms.
  • However, over time the virus weakens the body's immune system, making it vulnerable to infections such as tuberculosis (TB), pneumonia, viruses, cancers, gut infections and thrush. If someone with HIV develops these illnesses it may indicate they have developed AIDS.
What's the risk?
  • Figures from 2011 estimate 93,000 people in the UK are infected, according to the Health Protection Agency
  • Over 63,000 of these are thought to be men
  • This has almost doubled since 2002
What causes it?
  • The human immunodeficiency virus, of which there are two types:
    • HIV1
    • HIV2
  • HIV1 is more severe and is the type most commonly found in the UK.
  • The virus (viral load) is present in the blood (including menstrual blood), semen and vaginal fluids.
  • It is transmitted during unprotected penetrative sex and can also be transmitted during oral sex, although the risk is much lower.
How can I prevent it?

Safer sex practices, including the wearing of lubricated, extra-strength condoms if you practise anal sex, will reduce your risk of infection. 

Should I see a doctor?
  • There is no cure but treatment can delay the breakdown of the immune system and progression to AIDS.
  • An HIV test usually involves giving a blood sample to check for antibodies, which are made by the body as it attempts to control the virus. It usually takes around three months for the body to produce these antibodies once infected — this explains why an HIV test can't tell you if you've been infected in the last three months. It may take a week to get the results, but some clinics offer same-day testing.
  • The best place to have an HIV test is at a GUM clinic. These clinics can provide a specialist and totally confidential service.
What are the main treatments?

If you think you have been exposed to the virus within the last 72 hours (three days), anti-HIV medication may stop you becoming infected. For it to be effective, the medication, called post-exposure prophylaxis or PEP, must be started within 72 hours of coming into contact with the virus.

The quicker PEP is started the better, ideally within hours of coming into contact with HIV. The longer the wait, the less chance of it being effective. PEP has been misleadingly popularised as a “morning-after pill” for HIV. But the description is not accurate. PEP is a month-long treatment, which has serious side effects and is not guaranteed to work. The treatment involves taking the same drugs prescribed to people who have tested positive for HIV.

You should be able to start this treatment at a locla hospital or GUM clinic.

If you've tested positive for HIV it is treated with antiretrovirals (ARVs), which work against the HIV infection by slowing down the spread of the virus in the body.

A combination of ARVs is used because HIV can quickly adapt and become resistant to one single ARV.

Patients tend to take three or more types of ARV medication. This is known as combination therapy or antiretroviral therapy (ART).

Some antiretroviral drugs have been combined into one pill, known as a "fixed dose combination". This means that the most common treatments for people just diagnosed with HIV involve taking just one or two pills a day. Once HIV treatment is started, you will probably need to take the medication for the rest of your life.

Side-effects such as diarrhoea, tingling in the hands and feet and abnormal redistribution of fat (lipodystrophy) are common. Up to 14 tablets a day may need to be taken, and at specific times. Many people find the treatment regime very hard to stick to but for the treatment to be effective, it will need to be taken on time, every time.

How can I help myself?
  • Some people find that complementary therapies or a healthier diet enable them to cope better with the stress of being HIV positive and also with the side-effects of drugs.
  • The support of other people living with HIV and AIDS can also be very helpful.
What's the outlook?

Increasingly good as treatments become more sophisticated and effective.


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Date published 08/04/14
Date of last review 08/04/14
Date of next review 07/04/17


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