The basics

In this article:

About HIV
Living with HIV
Transmission
Prevention
HIV tests
World AIDS Day

About HIV

What is HIV?
HIV is a virus that attacks the body's immune system-the body's defence against diseases.  The latest research suggests that between 70 and 90 per cent of people may experience symptoms of infection a few days after having been infected.  Three symptoms occuring together: fever, rash and a severe sore throat should always be considered a potential indicator of HIV infection.  These symptoms usually disappear within two or three weeks.  Some people may not experience these early symptoms.  In all cases, without effective treatment the immune system will become very weak and no longer be able to fight off illnesses.

Are HIV and AIDS the same?
No. When someone is described as living with HIV, they have the HIV virus in their body. A person is considered to have developed AIDS when the immune system is so weak it can no longer fight off a range of diseases with which it would normally cope.

Is there a cure for HIV?
No, but treatment can keep the virus under control and the immune system healthy.  People on HIV treatment can live a healthy, active life, although they may experience side effects from the treatment.  If HIV is diagnosed late, treatment may be less effective in preventing AIDS.

Find out more facts about HIV and some of the myths at our website HIVAware.

Living with HIV

What's it like living with HIV?
If people with HIV are diagnosed early and respond to treatment they can be healthy, work and have relationships like anyone else and have a long life expectancy.

Coming to terms with an HIV diagnosis and getting used to treatment can be very difficult however, and people living with HIV will often need support from healthcare providers, friends and family, employers and support organisations. Read real stories from people living with HIV talking about their experiences.

What treatment is available for people with HIV?
HIV treatment was transformed with the introduction in 1996 of Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) which now means that as long as someone is diagnosed in time and then adheres to their medication they can in the vast majority of cases manage their health condition and look forward to a near normal life expectancy. 

There are side-effects for some people who take ART, including fatigue, depression and diarrhoea, though these are increasingly well-managed. 

In the early days of treatment, people with HIV had to take a very large number of pills, often with complex timing and/or dietary requirements, but advances in treatment now mean someone commencing treatment will in all probability have to take only one pill a day.

Why do people find it hard to tell others they're HIV positive?
People living with HIV may find it hard to tell others about their condition as they worry that people will reject them, or they will experience prejudice from friends, family and colleagues. People living with HIV can also experience discrimination in their workplace, in healthcare settings (for example GPs and dentists), from members of their local community and through the media.

HIV prejudice is often the result of ignorance about how HIV is passed on and unfounded fear of becoming infected. Encouraging those around us to talk about HIV and find out the facts can help overcome this. You can find advice about how to react when someone tells you they have HIV at HIVAware

Transmission

How is HIV passed on?
HIV can be passed on through infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids or breast milk. The most common ways HIV is passed on are:

  • Sex without a condom with someone living with HIV
  • Sharing infected needles, syringes or other injecting drug equipment
  • From an HIV-positive mother (to her child) during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding - if the right steps to prevent infection are not taken

Can you get HIV from oral sex?
Oral sex carries a much lower risk than vaginal or anal sex, but HIV can still be passed on through cuts or ulcers in the mouth if they come into contact with infected bodily fluids.

Can you get HIV from kissing?
No. HIV cannot be passed on through:

  • Kissing or touching
  • Spitting, coughing or sneezing
  • Toilet seats, swimming pools, or shared facilities or utensils

Can women living with HIV still have a baby?
Yes. HIV can be passed from mother to child, but there are steps that can be taken to reduce the possibility of the child contracting HIV to less than one per cent, including giving the mother and child antiretroviral HIV drugs, delivering the child by Caesarean and not breastfeeding the baby.

Prevention

Could I get HIV?
If you are sexually active or share needles you could be at risk from getting HIV. Although anyone can become infected, some communities in the UK have higher rates of infection, such as gay and bisexual men and Black African men and women. Take our online test to find out if you have put yourself at risk here.

How can I protect myself from HIV?
Always use a condom when having vaginal or anal sex. You also may want to use a condom or dental dam during oral sex although the risk of transmission of HIV is much lower. Always use a condom that carries the European CE safety mark. You can get free condoms from a family planning or sexual health clinic, which you can locate at www.fpa.org.uk/finder/. Never share needles, syringes or any other injecting equipment.

HIV tests

What do I do if I've put myself at risk?
For information on the basics of HIV testing, see NAT's simple HIV test fact sheet.

NAT works in partnership with Freedom Health. Click here to ask a Doctor about HIV.

Disclaimer: NAT is not responsible for any of the views or advice provided on the Freedom Health website.

If you are within 72 hours of an incident of possible exposure to HIV, ask for PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis) treatment from a sexual health clinic or at your nearest hospital accident and emergency department.  PEP treatment can stop you becoming infected with the virus after you have been exposed to HIV.  The sooner treatment is begun the higher the probability the treatment will be effective. Find out more about PEP at www.tht.org.uk/pep.

For more detailed information on the different types of HIV test you can have, see NAT's downloadable fact sheet.

World AIDS Day

In 1988 a summit of health ministers agreed that a united global effort was required to halt the spread of HIV.  As a result, World AIDS Day emerged as the first ever international health day.  It is now marked on 1 December in countries all around the world.

The aim of World AIDS Day is to bring to people's attention the worldwide challenges and consequences of the epidemic and ultimately, help prevent the spread of HIV and improve the lives of people living with the virus.

Why do we wear red ribbons to mark World AIDS Day?
The red ribbon is worn as a sign of support for people living with HIV. Wearing a red ribbon for World AIDS Day is a simple and powerful way to challenge the stigma and prejudice surrounding HIV and AIDS that prevents us from tackling HIV in the UK and internationally.

Find out more about the red ribbon here.

Thank you!
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