Everything You Need to Know About HIV and AIDS

10th February 2022

This week is National HIV Testing Week, but if you are unsure about what HIV is or whether you should consider a test, you are not alone. 

Treatment has come a very long way since the 1980s, but sadly HIV and AIDS are still sometimes stigmatised. The good news is that testing is quick and easy, and getting treatment will allow you to live a full, healthy life.

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The virus is passed on via the infected body fluids of another person, often during sexual activity. 

Weakening of the immune system, or immunodeficiency, occurs because 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 one is exposed to. This means that someone with untreated HIV may experience infections more often, or have more difficulty getting rid of an infection. 

 

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It occurs if HIV infection is left untreated 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 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.

 

What are the Symptoms?

Up to six weeks after being exposed to HIV, a person may experience a flu-like illness that resolves quite quickly. This is known as a seroconversion illness and could include the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Rash across the body
  • A sore throat.

During seroconversion, the body starts to produce antibodies to HIV. If you were to attend for a 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 well, and remain well, for many years after exposure. However, 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 many be susceptible to serious illnesses including:

  • Pneumonia (a severe chest infection)
  • Tuberculosis (TB)
  • Some HIV-related cancers.

How is the Virus Spread?

HIV is spread through exposure to certain body 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
  • 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 have HIV but do not know it. Getting a test is the only way to know for sure whether you have HIV. If the result is positive, it puts you in control of your health by allowing you to access specialist advice and treatment.

It is now easy to order and take an HIV test. In some cases, the result will be available to you within minutes. 

 

Clinic Testing

Free testing is usually available at sexual health clinics, via your GP, or at HIV testing centres run by Terrence Higgins Trust. Private clinics also offer tests, but a charge will likely be incurred. The impact of Covid-19 may mean that some services have changed, so it is important to contact a clinic beforehand to check that they are still offering HIV testing.

 

At Home Testing

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 test involves a finger prick to obtain a small blood sample. The NHS test must then be returned to the lab, and the result is then received via text message.

 

Terrence Higgins Trust also offers a testing service at a cost of £15. However, those on a low income are eligible to request their test for free. This test also involves a finger prick blood test. 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. This 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 minimal effect on your health. If you are diagnosed with HIV and take your medication as prescribed, your focus should therefore be on living well.

 

Receiving Treatment

For those diagnosed with HIV, treatment is always recommended straight away. Taking specialised HIV medications can reduce the amount of virus in your body so that it becomes undetectable. At this point, your immune system is better protected, and HIV cannot be passed on to anyone else.

It is important that you are under the care of a specialist HIV clinic. HIV treatment services for those with HIV are free via the NHS.

 

Mental Health

A diagnosis of HIV can create anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, or sleeping difficulties. If you feel that your mental health has been affected by HIV, speak to your HIV clinic about your concerns. Your symptoms 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.

 

Healthy Living

Being HIV positive doesn’t mean that healthy living is no longer worthwhile. You should continue to eat a healthy, balanced diet and exercise regularly.

Smoking cessation is recommended, as those with HIV who smoke are sadly at increased risk of heart attacks and early death. You should also try to reduce alcohol consumption, especially if your immune system is currently weakened or you have liver disease such as hepatitis.

Dating with HIV

A diagnosis of HIV does not mean the end of your sex life. If your viral load is undetectable due to effective HIV treatment, then you cannot transmit the virus. In this situation, 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 doesn’t know about your HIV status, and they contract HIV from you, then there is a risk of prosecution. It is strongly recommended that you tell any sexual partners about your HIV status so that you can make informed relationship decisions together.

 

PrEP Medication

PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis medication. This type of medication is suitable for those who do not have HIV but 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 HIV infection from occurring.

 

Where can I find more support for HIV?

For more information and support on HIV, Terrence Higgins Trust provides a wealth of information. They also offer access to Free HIV Testing as part of National HIV Testing Week. 

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.