What is it?
This is a summary of information about this condition. For more detailed information we recommend using the NHS Choices website, A link to this can be found in the External Resources tab above.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages the cells in the immune system and weakens the 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 the 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.
What causes it?
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 the oral sex is received or given and the oral hygiene of the person giving the oral sex.
What are the symptoms and signs?
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 the 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
What tests are used to diagnose it?
Testing can be undertaken in a number of places, including at GP surgeries, sexual health clinics, and clinics run by charities.
The only way to diagnose HIV is to have an HIV test. This involves testing a sample of the blood or saliva for signs of the infection.
it's important to be aware that:
- emergency anti-HIV medication called post-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) may stop infection if started within three days of possible exposure to the virus; starting it as soon as possible is recommended
- an early diagnosis means that treatment can be started sooner, which can improve the chances of controlling the virus and reduce the chance of passing the virus onto others
HIV tests may need to be repeated 1-3 months after potential exposure to HIV infection (this is known as the window period), but help should be sought as soon as possible.
What treatments are available?
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.
The goal of HIV treatment is to have an undetectable viral load. This means the level of HIV virus in the body is low enough to not be detected by a test.
NHS Choices website accessed on 10/10/17
Link to the NHS Choices website available in External Resources
Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.