Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). HIV impairs the immune system’s ability to fight infections. It is most commonly caught by having unprotected sex (sex without a condom). There is no cure for HIV but there are treatments that can allow those infected with the virus to live long, healthy lives. It’s estimated that up to 80% of people who are infected with HIV experience seroconversion illness, which are the flu-like symptoms that occur a few weeks after infection.

The most common symptoms are:

  • fever (raised temperature)
  • sore throat
  • body rash

Other symptoms can include:

  • tiredness
  • joint pain
  • muscle pain
  • swollen glands (nodes)

Symptoms last 1-2 weeks and are a sign that the body is fighting the virus. It is important to remember that these symptoms do not necessarily mean that you have HIV, as there are many other likely causes. However, if you experience some of these symptoms and suspect you may have been exposed to HIV, you should get tested.

How can I get it?

HIV is found in the bodily fluids and blood of those who are infected with the virus. The virus is transmitted through contact with infected bodily fluids. Most people who contract HIV contract it through unprotected anal or vaginal sex. You can also get the virus through sharing needles and women can pass the virus on to their babies through pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding. It is possible to acquire HIV through oral sex, but the chances are very low (1 in 5000 if you give unprotected oral sex to someone with the infection).

What are the risk factors?

People who are at higher risk of becoming infected with HIV include:

  • men who have had unprotected sex with men
  • women who have had sex without a condom with men who have sex with men
  • people who have had sex without a condom with a person who has lived or travelled in Africa
  • people who inject drugs
  • people who have had sex without a condom with somebody who has injected drugs
  • people who have caught another sexually transmitted infection
  • people who have received a blood transfusion while in Africa, eastern Europe, the countries of the former Soviet Union, Asia or central and southern America

What are the symptoms?

About 2-6 weeks after infection, most people develop flu-like symptoms that are a sign that the body is fighting the virus.

These symptoms include:

  • fever (raised temperature)
  • sore throat
  • body rash
  • tiredness
  • joint pain
  • muscle pain
  • swollen glands (nodes)

These symptoms usually last around 1-2 weeks. After this initial period, there are often no symptoms for many years (asymptomatic HIV infection), but the virus is still active and causing damage to the immune system.

As the immune system weakens, people will develop symptoms such as:

  • weight loss
  • chronic diarrhoea
  • night sweats
  • skin problems
  • recurrent infections
  • serious life-threatening illnesses such as tuberculosis and lymphoma

Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent the infection from progressing to this stage. There have been great developments in treatment that allow people to live long, healthy lives, and receiving treatment as soon as possible can improve the outcome.

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Diagnosis

It is important to get tested immediately if you think there is a chance that you have been exposed to HIV. Tests will either involve a blood sample that will take a few days to process or a “point of care” test, which uses a swab of saliva or drop of blood which can be tested in a few minutes. Blood tests are more accurate and should be performed if a point of care test gives a positive result. Tests may give a false-negative if you are tested within 28 days of exposure (the “window period”), as your body has not yet developed enough antibodies to be detected by the test.

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Treatment

If you think you have been exposed to HIV in the last 72 hours, it is important that you seek immediate medical attention. It is possible that treatment, called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) may prevent you from becoming infected. The sooner the treatment is started, the more effective it will be. PEP is only recommended following high risk exposure, such as intercourse with someone who is known to be HIV positive, because it is a month-long treatment with potentially serious side effects. It involves taking drugs that are usually prescribed for people who are HIV positive, in an attempt to prevent infection, but it is not guaranteed to work, so it is better to avoid exposure in the first place.

If you have tested positive for HIV, you will be undergoing regular blood tests to monitor the progress of the infection. This is done by testing the level of CD4+ve lymphocyte cells. Treatment is usually recommended if their number falls below 350, although treatment may begin earlier if you have other medical conditions. The aim of treatment is to lower the number of HIV cells in your body to allow it to heal itself. If you are on HIV treatment and the virus levels in your blood are generally low, you are unlikely to pass the virus on to someone else.

HIV is treated with anti-retroviral drugs that work by stopping the virus from replicating in the body. Once treatment is started, it will most likely be continued for the rest of your life. For the medication to be effective, it needs to be taken every day at the same time. Not taking you medication regularly can reduce its effectiveness and cause it to fail.

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