HIV is a viral infection that attacks the body’s immune system. There’s no cure, but the right treatment can reduce your viral load.
Once your viral load is undetectable, you cannot pass the virus on through sex. This is known as U=U or undetectable = untransmittable.
Early diagnosis and effective treatment mean that most people with HIV will not develop AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) or AIDS-related illnesses.
How do you get HIV?
HIV is most commonly passed on through mixing bodily fluids during vaginal or anal sex without a condom.
HIV can also spread:
from mother to child at birth or during breastfeeding
by sharing needles or syringes or using unsterilised equipment for injecting
HIV cannot be transmitted in saliva, sweat or urine. So you cannot get it from kissing. And there’s a very low risk of getting it through giving or receiving oral sex.
Symptoms of HIV
A lot of people will not have symptoms and will not know they have the infection. So it’s important to get tested regularly.
For other people, HIV can cause flu-like symptoms a few weeks after infection. After this, the infection can stay in the body for years without showing any symptoms.
In the weeks after infection, you might experience symptoms that feel like the flu, including:
raised temperature (fever)
rash on the body
If you have any combination of these symptoms and think there’s a chance you have HIV, you should visit your local sexual health clinic, GP or HIV charity clinic straightaway.
After these first symptoms go away, you might not experience any symptoms for many years. But the virus will stay active in your body and cause damage to your immune system.
Getting tested for HIV
Getting tested is the only way to find out if you have HIV. You can get tested at your nearest clinic, or you can order a test to do at home.
There are different types of tests available.
Lab tests use a blood sample that's sent to a laboratory to be tested. You can have this test done in a clinic or use a kit at home to take your own sample. This is the most accurate type of test. It can give accurate results 7 weeks (45 days) after infection.
Rapid tests use one drop of blood or a sample of your saliva. They will show results within 20 minutes. You can do this in a clinic or using an at-home kit. You can get accurate results 3 to 12 weeks after infection for the blood drop test or 12 weeks after for the saliva test.
If you get a reactive result (sometimes called a positive result) from a rapid test or any type of at-home test, you'll need to do a blood test at a clinic to get a confirmed result.
If you use our home HIV test, we’ll text you with your results as soon as they're available. If you have a reactive result, our clinicians will get in touch to support you and help you get extra tests to confirm your result.
If there’s a chance you’ve been exposed to HIV in the last 3 days (72 hours), then a short course of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) may stop you from contracting the infection. Go to your nearest PEP service immediately. The sooner you start this medication, the more likely it is to be effective. You can get PEP at your local sexual health clinic or A&E.
You can help reduce the spread of HIV by:
using barrier methods like condoms or latex gloves for vaginal and anal sexual activity – you can get free condoms at sexual health clinics
using lubricant – this can make sex safer by reducing the chance of small tears from friction during sexual activity
consider taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication if you’re at high risk of infection, for example, if you have HIV-positive partners
not sharing any needles or other equipment for injecting drugs
Regular testing helps reduce the spread of HIV and other STIs. We recommend you test at least once a year. If you regularly have sex with new partners, we recommend testing every 3 months.
This is in line with current national guidelines from The British Association of Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH).
Is HIV serious?
There is currently no cure for HIV. But there are drug treatments that work very well. With early diagnosis and treatment, most people with HIV will have long and healthy lives.
Without treatment, HIV damages your immune system and weakens your ability to fight other infections and diseases. As your immune system gets more severely damaged, you can catch a number of potentially life-threatening illnesses. This is what’s known as AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).
Treatment for HIV
HIV is treated with antiretroviral medication. This medication stops the virus from developing in your body. It gives your immune system a chance to rebuild itself and stop further damage. The treatment is usually given as a combination of different drugs.
During treatment, you’ll be given regular blood tests to check how much of the virus is in your blood. This is called the 'viral load'. Effective HIV treatment can lower your viral load to an undetectable level.
If your viral load is undetectable for 6 months or more, you cannot pass on the virus during sex.
Telling your partner
If you have HIV, you should tell your current partner and anyone else you’ve had sex with in the last 6 months. They can have HIV without knowing it, so it‘s important they get a test.
Your sexual health clinic will be able to help you contact past partners and can do this anonymously so your name does not have to be shared.