HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus which harms the body's immune system making it difficult to fight off infections. HIV can be passed from person-to-person through blood, semen and vaginal fluids.

Symptoms and causes

With HIV, it may be possible that no symptoms are present for 10 years or more but most people (about 70-90%) will experience some symptoms shortly after infection.

The most common signs of HIV are fever, severe sore throat and a rash all at the same time. People who have cold or flu like symptoms worry it may be signs of HIV but they are often not. However, if you suffer all of the symptoms at the same time and feel you may have been in a situation to be at risk, you should have a HIV test to be certain.

It is most commonly spread through:

  • Having vaginal or anal sex without using a condom
  • Sharing needles or injecting equipment
  • During pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding by an infected mother
  • By infected blood

It cannot be caught through everyday social contact, such as:

  • Shaking hands
  • Kissing or hugging
  • Sharing cutlery or mugs
  • Sharing towels or toilet seats
  • Going to swimming pools

Despite what you have heard, you cannot catch HIV through gay sex only. Although men who have sex with men are at a higher risk, HIV can also be caught through heterosexual (straight) sex. Around 1 in 10 heterosexual young people aged 16 – 24 in the UK are being diagnosed with HIV each year.

How to get tested

The best place to get tested is your local GUM clinic. Testing is available at a CaSH clinic but if your results are positive, treatment will be required at the GUM clinic. The staff in both the clinics deal with this type of illness so they will be able to provide you with advice on how to stay healthy and give you the relevant support or treatment you require.

HIV testing has improved over the years and is now a lot more reliable. The most common tests involve taking a small sample of your blood for analysis. However, some clinics now offer a rapid HIV test which gives you the results in 20 minutes.

It may be possible to stop the development of HIV in the first 72 hours after the infection which is known as Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) with anti-HIV medicines. This is often used when a person knows they have definitely been exposed to the virus. There is NO guarantee PEP will work and it can have some very unpleasant side effects.

Treatment

There is no cure for HIV but it can be prevented and treated. Treatment usually involves taking three or more antiretroviral drugs every day for the rest of a person's life. The drugs are to help keep the amount of HIV in the body at a low level.

Without relevant treatment, HIV will continue to damage the immune system until it is so badly damaged that you develop AIDS which can be very fatal.

If you would like to know more about HIV/AIDS or would like to be tested, please contact the GUM or CaSH clinic directly. You do not have to be referred to the clinic by your GP; you can make an appointment over the phone yourself.