Call 01209 61560001209 615600
Exit site Toggle menu Get free condoms



HIV - what is it?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

HIV infects (usually through unprotected sexual contact) and gradually destroys a person's immune system, reducing their protection against infections and cancers.

Initially, someone with HIV may show no symptoms of infection, however some people will experience a fever-like illness, a rash and a sore throat. If left untreated, HIV will destroy the immune system, leaving it open to infections and illnesses.

There's around 100,000 people in the UK living with HIV (and the number increases every year), A quarter of those don't realise they have it, and are potentially (and unknowingly) passing it on to others.

Earlier diagnosis of HIV is really important - it makes it easier to manage with treatment (see below)


AIDS - What is it?

AIDS is short for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

AIDS is not a single disease or condition. Instead, it is a term that describes the point when a person's immune system can no longer cope because of the damage caused by HIV.

People do not actually die from AIDS; they die from the cancers, pneumonia or other conditions that may take hold when their immune system has been weakened by HIV.

The term AIDS is generally not used as much now, instead you will hear people mention the phrase 'Late Stage HIV diagnosis'


The HIV life cycle


Treatment? Cure?

There is no cure for HIV, but there are combinations of drug treatments that, if taken correctly, can keep people living with HIV healthy. These combinations are sometimes referred to as "Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy" (HAART) or "Antiretroviral Therapy" (ART) or "Combination Therapy" . The drugs reduce the level of HIV in the blood and delay the development of AIDS defining illnesses. However, for some people there can be unpleasant side effects from these drugs and a new regime will need to be found. 

Remember: There is no vaccine for HIV, once a person has HIV, they have it for life. Treatment, once started is also for life so adherence to the medication is very important.

'Undetectable' viral load*

Once treatment has been started someone's viral load could reach an 'undetectable' level which means that the medication is working at suppressing the virus allowing the immune system to recover somewhat. When someone has been 'undetectable' for over 6 months and has no other underlying sexually transmitted infections it means that the likelihood of them then passing on the virus to anyone else is negligible.

In January 2008 the Swiss Federal Commission for HIV/AIDS released a statement that read:

“An HIV-infected person on antiretroviral therapy with completely suppressed viraemia (“effective ART”) and without sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is not sexually infectious, i.e. cannot transmit HIV through sexual contact.”

It goes on to say that this statement is valid as long as:

• the person adheres to antiretroviral therapy, the effects of which must be evaluated regularly by the treating physician, and

• the viral load has been suppressed (< 40 copies/ml) for at least six months, and

• there are no other sexually transmitted infections.

Studies have now proven that people in sero-discordant relationships (where one is HIV positive and the other negative) have a 4% maximum chance of contracting HIV in a 10 year period through unprotected anal intercourse following the rules of the Swiss Statement. They also go on to recommend that those not in stable relationships should continue to use condoms.


*Even though someone is 'undetectable' they will still have the virus. 'Undetectable' means that levels of the virus are below a certain number in a particular measurement of blood, not enough for transmission to occur.


How is HIV passed on?

There are three main ways in which HIV can be passed on:

  • Anal or vaginal sex without a condom (with someone who has HIV)
  • A mother can pass on HIV to her baby during pregnancy, at birth or through breastfeeding
  • Sharing needles or syringes that are infected with HIV

HIV can also be caught through:

  • Oral sex (with someone who has HIV) - although this carries a much lower risk than unprotected anal or vaginal sex, around 2% of people who caught HIV through sexual contact report that it was through oral contact with an infected partner.
  • Blood transfusions in some developing countries (although this is increasingly rarer)

You can't get HIV from

  • Kissing, touching, hugging, shaking hands
  • Sharing crockery and cutlery
  • Coughing or sneezing
  • Toilet seats
  • Insect or animal bites
  • Swimming pools
  • Eating food prepared by someone who has HIV


Getting tested

Sexual Health clinics offer free and confidential HIV testing. The test is also available from GP's but then it may be entered into your medical records, this is something you may not wish to happen.

What does the test involve?

A small sample of blood will be taken from your arm, sent to a laboratory and tested.

It can take anything from a few hours to a week or longer to get the result back, the clinic will advise you of this when you have your test

The results

  • HIV negative
    No antibodies to HIV found in the blood
    This usually means that a person does not have HIV

However, a single negative result may not be enough to rely on. It can take up to three months, sometimes longer, for HIV-antibodies to develop in the blood test after someone becomes infected. For this reason a re-test should be done and the clinic will give advice as to when this would be appropriate.

  • HIV Positive
    Antibodies to HIV were found in the blood, and you have HIV


Help! I've had sexual contact with a person who has, or I think might have, HIV!

If you've had sex with someone who you think (or know) has HIV in the past 72 hours, you can access PEP. It's a course of Anti-HIV drugs that can stop the infection getting into your system. The drugs aren't pleasant, you'll need to take them for a month, and they aren't guaranteed to be effective, but they significantly reduce the likelihood of infection. They are available from Sexual Health Clinics, and A&E departments.

If you're at all worried about HIV and want to talk to someone about it, or would support in going for a test click here to contact us or call the GU clinic to make an appointment on:

  • 01872 255044