What is HIV?


Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) attacks the body’s immune system. It weakens an infected person’s defense against life-threatening illnesses and diseases including cancer and serious infections. Unchecked, the virus will progress to AIDS. 

Described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a “major global public health issue” (having claimed 34.7 million lives so far), at the end of 2020 there were an estimated 37.6 million people around the world living with HIV.  

How is the HIV virus transmitted?

HIV is transmitted via bodily fluids. Common methods of transmission are sharing needles and syringes, unprotected vaginal or anal sex, and transmission from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. You cannot get the HIV virus from hugging, kissing, shaking hands, sweat, urine or saliva.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

HIV is most infectious within the first few months of the virus entering a person’s body, when the viral load is at its highest. Some people experience flu-like symptoms during this period. Over time, as the immune system weakens, an HIV-positive person may develop a persistent cough, common herpes, diarrhoea, fatigue, fever, swollen lymph nodes and weight loss. 

Get a discreet, cheap and quick at-home HIV test on the Nabta Women’s Health Shop

What’s the difference between HIV and AIDS?

Related but not the same, HIV is a virus, AIDS is a condition. AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is the chronic condition caused when a person’s immune system is so damaged and weakened by the HIV virus that it can’t defend itself against diseases and infections. A person living with AIDS has a shorter life expectancy due to the body’s susceptibility to what the Mayo Clinic describes as opportunistic illnesses or cancers.  

How is HIV diagnosed?

HIV is diagnosed with a blood or saliva test. Your doctor’s clinic may offer a finger prick test with initial results ready after just a few minutes, but a more detailed analysis will take a few days. At-home testing kits are also available to order online (see Nabta Health) and are stocked at some local pharmacies. 

If there is a chance you have been exposed to HIV you should seek medical advice immediately. Emergency post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) administered within 24 to 72 hours of exposure to the virus may halt the infection. 

Can you treat HIV?

There is currently no cure for HIV. It is however manageable with early diagnosis and daily antiretroviral medication. Antiretroviral drugs stop the virus replicating in your body, halting its progression and reducing damage to the immune system. Effective treatment also lessens the viral load and with it the risk of passing the virus to others. If a person is HIV positive and acts early they have the potential to lead a long and healthy life. 


HIV and AIDS, NHS https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/

HIV/AIDS, Mayo Clinic https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hiv-aids/symptoms-causes/syc-20373524

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