What is HIV?

HIV stands for ‘human immunodeficiency virus’. It’s an infection caused by a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. It’s most commonly transmitted by having sex without a condom. Transmission can also happen from mother to child during pregnancy or through breastfeeding. HIV is also spread by sharing of needles.

HIV can be treated by taking antiretroviral medication.

Although it cannot be completely cured, treatment means you can live a long healthy life. If you start treatment early, after a few months you should have the virus under control. Once the virus is under control you cannot pass HIV on to other people through sexual contact.

Who is at risk of HIV?

Anyone who is sexually active can be at risk of HIV. Some people will have a higher risk, for example:

  • people who have multiple sexual partners
  • people who do not use a condom consistently and correctly when having sex
  • people who have other sexually transmitted infections which have not been treated
  • people who have unprotected penetrative vaginal and anal sex

Transmission can also happen from mother to child during pregnancy or through breastfeeding.

HIV is also spread by sharing needles.

How can I prevent HIV infection?

The most common way to become infected with HIV is by having sex. 

Using a condom when having sex is an effective way to prevent HIV transmission. Certain bodily fluids are highly infectious in people who are living with HIV and are not on effective treatment:

  • blood
  • semen
  • vaginal discharge
  • anal secretions
  • breastmilk

Some people who think they are at risk of catching HIV choose to take a medication called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). This is a tablet which has few side effects and is highly effective at preventing HIV infection.

Testing regularly can give you confidence that you are not passing HIV on to your sexual partners. If you are HIV positive, taking antiretroviral medication is the best thing you can do to avoid passing HIV on to others. This treatment can reduce your viral load to the point where it cannot be detected by an HIV test, and it cannot be passed on.

Can I be treated for HIV?

If you are diagnosed with HIV, you will be prescribed antiretroviral medication. It works by stopping the virus from replicating. This protects your immune system from further damage and allows it to repair and strengthen itself.

During your treatment, it’s important that you take your recommended dose every day and that you always attend your HIV clinic appointments.

By doing this, you can reduce the amount of virus in your body so that it can prevent you from falling ill. Then it will not be detected by an HIV test because the amount of virus is so small that it hides very well, but HIV is still present in the blood, as it has no cure yet. When you adhere to your antiretroviral medication, you become virally suppressed and the HIV infection can no longer be passed on to others.