Mandy Tyson, Executive Director for Clinical Governance and Clinical Leadership at the Terrence Higgins Trust, tells us about HIV / AIDS:

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This is a virus which affects humans and it can gradually damage an infected person's immune system, which we need to work properly to fight infection and illnesses. Without treatment and over a number of years, the virus can reduce the body’s ability to fight these infections and illnesses. However people living with HIV and on treatment are much more likely to remain healthy and well (May et al, 2012).

Public Health England (PHE) estimates that 1 in 4 people who are HIV positive in the UK do not know that they are infected (PHE, 2014). We need to do everything we can to increase how many people know that they have HIV because, if people start treatment at the right time, they are much more likely to stay healthy and well and with successful treatment can prevent the virus being passed on to others. People living with HIV who are receiving treatment have a near normal life expectancy. This means that they live as long as most other people who do not have HIV.

Did you know…

1 in 4 people who are HIV positive in the UK do not know their status? The faster you start the right treatment, the higher the quality and the longer the length of life you will have. Click here to learn more.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is a term used when a person’s immune system begins to struggle to do its job and people begin to develop a number of infections and illnesses that they wouldn’t normally get if their immune system were healthy. This is because of the damage caused by HIV. This progression to developing AIDS can be successfully stopped if HIV treatment is started (WHO, 2015).

HIV in the UK

Public Health England estimates that, in 2013, the total number of people living with HIV was 107,000 (PHE, 2014). However it also estimated that 26,100 of them don’t know they are infected. The good news is that most people living with HIV who know that they are infected are taking effective treatment. Taking this treatment means that the levels of HIV virus are kept at very low or ‘undetectable’ levels, which also means that the person will live longer, stay healthier and be much less likely to pass on the virus.

Main sources of HIV infection

The body fluids that can contain enough HIV to infect someone are:

  • seminal fluid (cum)
  • vaginal fluids, including menstrual fluids (period blood)
  • breast milk
  • blood
  • the mucus found in the rectum (the bottom)
  • pre-cum (the fluid that the penis produces for lubrication before ejaculation)

Signs and symptoms

Most people do not have signs or symptoms to tell them that they are infected with HIV. However, if they do, the first symptoms can appear within 2 – 4 weeks of infection (e.g. Flu-like illnesses, sore throat, swollen glands, rash). This is called a ‘seroconversion illness’. This soon settles down and then most people will have no symptoms until years later.

As HIV becomes more advanced the symptoms of a weakened immune system start to appear.  Common symptoms include:

  • unintentional weight loss
  • chronic diarrhoea
  • recurrent infections e.g. chest infections
  • skin rashes, especially on your face, genitals or anus
  • an increase in Herpes ulcers or thrush infections in your mouth and genitals
  • sweats, especially at night
  • unusual tiredness
  • nausea or loss of appetite
  • swollen lymph glands in the neck, groin or armpits.

These symptoms can all be caused by many other common conditions so do not necessarily mean that you are infected with HIV.  However, if you experience all or some of these symptoms and you think that you may have been at risk of HIV at any time, it is a good idea to get a test. You may have been at risk of HIV if you have had any unprotected sex or have taken part in high risk behaviours such as sharing injecting equipment when using recreational drugs or steroids, having unprotected sex with different partners, having unprotected sex with someone who is HIV positive, or if you have been given a blood transfusion outside of the UK. It is also possible for a HIV positive female to pass the infection to her baby; this can occur during pregnancy, at birth or through breastfeeding. This is a rare occurence in the UK as HIV testing of pregnant women and appropriate treatment for those who are HIV positive prevents mother to child transmission of the virus.

HIV testing

Knowing that you are HIV positive is so much better for your long term health as you can start treatment early which means that you will stay healthy and well for longer, living as long as most people who do not have HIV (May et al, 2012). Effective HIV therapy also prevents transmission of the virus to others. HIV testing can either be done by a sample of blood being taken from your arm or by using a pin prick blood test on the end of your finger.

Why test for HIV?

  • Treatment is extremely effective and easy to take. There are so many different options now, so it is worth knowing if you have HIV.
  • You are much less likely to pass on HIV when you are on treatment, so testing can improve your health and wellbeing and protect others too.
  • The longer someone goes untested and untreated, there is more chance that the treatment will not work as well as it would have if it had been started sooner.
  • Not having a test does not make the virus go away.

For more help and support please contact Better2Know, the Terrence Higgins Trust or your GP.