Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that damages the immune system and prevents the body from being able to fight common infections. Without treatment, the immune system will become severely damaged and life threatening infections and illnesses like cancer can occur.
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the name used to describe the potentially life-threatening conditions that occur when the immune system has been damaged by HIV.
Many people will experience a short flu-like illness 2-6 weeks after being infected with HIV and then it may be several years before they experience problems.
While AIDS cannot be transmitted from one person to another, HIV can. HIV is not transmitted by breathing the same air, using the same toilets or touching the same objects as a person with HIV. The virus cannot be transmitted through sweat, urine or saliva.
The virus is very fragile and does not survive outside the body for long. HIV is found in the body fluids of an infected person, including semen, vaginal and anal fluids, blood and breast milk.
In the UK, the most common way of getting HIV is by having sex without a condom. Other ways of getting HIV include;
- Sharing needles, syringes or other injecting equipment
- Transmission from a mother to a baby during pregnancy, birth or breast feeding
Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention
Seek medical advice as soon as possible if you think you might have been exposed to HIV. Tests may have to be repeated 1 to 3 months after exposure to confirm the results but some treatments can be given before the results are confirmed.
There is medication called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) which can stop you becoming infected with HIV if it is started within 72 hours of exposure to the virus.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a medicine for HIV negative people, taken before high-risk sex to prevent becoming infected with HIV. It is available on the NHS in Scotland and there are ongoing trials in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is currently available from some NHS sexual health clinics in England as part of the PrEP Impact Trial and is expected to become available on the NHS after October 2020. Other effective ways of preventing transmission are using condoms and never sharing injecting equipment.
There is no cure for HIV but there are very effective treatments which, if taken properly, can mean most people with HIV will never develop any AIDS related illness and can live a near-normal lifespan. Combinations of anti-retroviral medicines are used which can reduce the amount of virus in the body and significantly reduce the risk of passing HIV on to someone else.