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    Everything You Need to Know About HIV and AIDS

    Treatment has come a very long way since the 1980s. Sadly HIV and AIDS are still stigmatised by those that do not fully understand them. The good news is that testing for HIV  is quick and easy, and getting appropriate treatment will allow you to live a full, healthy life no matter your infection status. In this article, we will explore everything that you need to know about HIV and AIDS, hopefully breaking stigmas that have long been held against these very misunderstood conditions.

    What is HIV?

    HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The virus is passed on via the infected bodily fluids of a person carrying the infection and is often transmitted during unprotected sexual activity. HIV causes many different symptoms in the body. Weakening of the immune system, or immunodeficiency, when the virus infects cells needed to fight infections. A weakened immune system is less able to mount a response to other viruses or bacteria that you are exposed to. Because of this, someone with untreated HIV may experience infections more often and may find it more difficult to get rid of an infection.

    What is AIDS?

    AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It occurs if an HIV infection is left untreated for too long, and refers to a severely weakened immune system. With severe HIV-related immunosuppression, opportunistic infections can occur. If certain HIV-related infections or illnesses occur, a diagnosis of AIDS might be made. 

    Luckily, modern treatment available in the UK means that it is now very rare for HIV to develop into AIDS. The term ‘AIDS’ is therefore rarely used in the UK. If necessary, healthcare professionals may instead refer to advanced HIV, but it is important to note this does not mean that you have AIDS.

    What are the symptoms of HIV?

    Up to six weeks after being exposed to HIV, a person may experience a flu-like illness that resolves itself quite quickly. This is known as a seroconversion illness and could include the symptoms such as a fever, a rash across the body or a sore throat.

    During seroconversion, the body will start to produce antibodies to the HIV virus. If you were to attend an HIV test at this point, it would detect the antibodies. Detection of the virus allows for treatment to begin promptly.

    If a person is not diagnosed or treated for HIV following seroconversion it is likely that they will return to feeling healthy and will remain healthy for many years after exposure. Unfortunately, the virus will remain in the body. Years after seroconversion, new symptoms may be noticed. These symptoms tend to be a sign of the immune system becoming weakened, and include:

    • Night sweats

    • Tiredness

    • Weight loss

    • Persistent diarrhoea

    • Swellings in the armpits, neck or groin due to enlarged lymph nodes

    • More regular cold sore outbreaks

    • Thrush infections in the mouth

    If the immune system is severely weakened by HIV, a person may be susceptible to serious illnesses including:

    • Pneumonia (a severe chest infection)

    • Tuberculosis (TB)

    • Some HIV-related cancers

    How is the HIV virus spread?

    HIV is spread through exposure to certain bodily fluids. The virus can be passed on through the following:

    • Blood

    • Semen

    • Vaginal fluid

    • Anal fluid or mucus

    • Breast milk. 

    As a result, HIV can be transmitted through the following activities. Having vaginal or anal sex without using a condom. Sharing sex toys without covering them with a condom or properly cleaning them. Sharing needles or other drug-injecting equipment. Coming into contact with blood that is contaminated with the virus. From mother to baby during pregnancy, labour or birth, or by breastfeeding.

    HIV cannot be passed on by:

    • Being sneezed, spat, or coughed on

    • Kissing

    • Hugging

    • Sharing crockery, cutlery, bedding or other household items

    • Using the same toilet

    • Being in the same space or room 

    • Shaking hands, or any other form of social contact.

    How Can I Get a Test for HIV?

    Around 5,000 people in the UK will have HIV but do not know it. The only way to know whether or not you have HIV is to get yourself tested. If the result of your test is positive then it puts you in control of your health and will allow you to access specialist advice and treatment. It is now easy to order and take an HIV test. In some cases, the result of the test will even be available to you within minutes. The sooner you know the result of the test the better as this will allow you to get access to treatment quicker. 

    Is Clinic Testing Available for HIV?

    Free testing is usually available from sexual health clinics, from your GP, or at HIV testing centres that are run by the Terrence Higgins Trust. The Terrence Higgins Trust is Britain's leading HIV and sexual health charity. Some private clinics also offer tests, but you will usually need to pay for these. Some services have changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You should make sure to contact a clinic beforehand to check that they are still offering HIV testing.

    Is At-Home Testing Available for HIV?

    HIV self-testing kits can also be ordered for home delivery. In England, free HIV tests can be ordered via the NHS free testing service. The free test from the NHS involves a finger prick to obtain a small blood sample. The NHS test should then be returned to a lab, and you will receive your result via text message.

    The Terrence Higgins Trust also offer a testing service at a cost of £15. Those with a low income are eligible to request their test for free. The test from the Terrence Higgins Trust also involves a finger prick. Once you have completed the test at home, you will be able to read your result within 15 minutes. 

    If your test result is negative, and two to three months have passed since potential exposure to HIV, then it is very likely that you do not have HIV. If your test result is positive or ‘reactive’, you must follow the instructions given to you with the test. These instructions will direct you to appropriate healthcare services as further testing is required to confirm a positive HIV result. 

    Living with HIV

    Modern treatment helps to ensure that HIV has a minimal effect on your health. If you are diagnosed with HIV and you take your medication as prescribed your focus should therefore be on living well, ensuring you have plenty of exercise and ensuring that you maintain a healthy, balanced diet.

    Should I Receive Treatment for HIV?

    For those diagnosed with HIV, treatment is always recommended straight away. Taking specialised HIV medications, such as PrEP, can reduce the amount of virus in your body to the point that it becomes undetectable. At this point, your immune system is better protected, and there is a very low risk of HIV being passed on to anyone else. It is important that you are under the care of a specialist HIV clinic.

    Video Guide: What is PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis)?

    Is Mental Health Support available for living with HIV?

    Yes, mental health support is available for those living with HIV and is often encouraged. A diagnosis of HIV can come alongside anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, or sleeping difficulties. If you feel that your mental health has been affected by your HIV diagnosis then you should speak to your HIV clinic about your concerns. Your mental health issues may be improved by:

    • Accessing counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

    • Mindfulness or meditation

    • Setting a stricter sleep routine

    • Taking a course of anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications

    Is Healthy Living encouraged if you are HIV positive?

    Yes, Being HIV positive doesn’t mean that healthy living is no longer worthwhile. You should continue to eat a healthy, balanced diet and you should also ensure that you are exercising regularly.

    It is recommended that you try to quit smoking if you do. Those with HIV who smoke are sadly at increased risk of heart attacks and early death. You should also try to reduce the amount of alcohol that you consume, especially if your immune system is currently weakened or you have a liver disease such as hepatitis.

    Is Dating with HIV Possible?

    Yes, dating as someone who is an HIV-positive person is possible. A diagnosis of HIV does not mean the end of your love life. If your viral load is undetectable due to effective HIV treatment, then it is highly unlikely that you will transmit the virus. In cases like this, you can continue to enjoy a sexual relationship with a partner without fear of transmitting HIV. 

    If you have a detectable viral load then you could pass HIV to a sexual partner through unprotected sex. If your partner does not know about your HIV status and they contract HIV from you, then there is a risk that you could be prosecuted. It is strongly recommended that you tell any sexual partners about your HIV status so that you can both make informed relationship decisions together.

    A Guide to Dating with HIV - Google Web Story

    For more information on dating with HIV read our comprehensive guide.

    What is PrEP Medication?

    PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis medication. This type of medication is suitable for those who do not have HIV and want to avoid it. It is more commonly taken by those in high-risk groups or those who are HIV-negative but have a partner who is positive. 

    UK Meds can supply PrEP discreetly to your door. The generic version of Truvada tablets contains emtricitabine and tenofovir which work together to block the virus should it enter your body. This prevents an HIV infection from occurring.

    A-Z Guide to PrEP - Google Web Story

    Where can I find more support for HIV?

    For more information and support on HIV please check out the Terrence Higgins Trust. They provide a wealth of information and advice. Free testing for HIV is also available via the online NHS service. You can book an appointment at your local sexual health clinic or speak to your GP if you require further information. You can also purchase any PrEP medication that you may need from UK Meds.

    Customer Experiences: Ordering PrEP Online at UK Meds

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