HIV and AIDS

Understanding what is happening to you or someone else who has HIV or AIDS can be difficult.  HIV and AIDS are not the same.

If a person has HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), this does not mean they have AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).  You can have HIV for many years and feel quite healthy, which can increase the risk of passing on the virus to someone else without knowing.  This is why it is important for you to take responsibility for your own sexual health and protect (use a condom) yourself from either catching or passing on HIV/AIDS to someone else.  HIV is most commonly passed from person to person through unprotected sexual contact.

What makes the HIV virus difficult to treat is that it attacks the good infection fighting cells of our immune system which, over time, weakens and becomes unable to defend the body against bacteria, viruses and germs.  The developments in HIV treatments have dramatically improved over the year, which has been welcomed by many people who have seen their life expectancy and quality of life increase.

The majority of people diagnosed as HIV positive can and do lead a normal life.

How can I catch HIV?

HIV can be passed on to others in a number of different ways, including:

Sexual contact:

if you have sex (vaginal, anal or oral) with someone who is infected with the virus, it can enter your body through the lining of your vagina, vulva, penis, rectum, or mouth. Sex toys used by an infected person can also spread the virus if they have not been washed properly.

Mother to baby:

mothers can pass HIV onto their unborn babies. However, treatment with anti-HIV drugs, during pregnancy, greatly reduces the risk of transmission. Having a Caesarean section will reduce the risk further. A mother’s breast milk can contain the HIV virus and be passed on to her child through breastfeeding. For mother who are HIV+ formula milk is strongly recommended.

Sharing needles:

drug users who share needles or syringes contaminated with infected blood can pass on HIV, as well as other viruses, such as hepatitis B and C.

Infected blood:

in the past, people have been infected with HIV after having blood transfusions.  However, now in the UK, all blood products are checked for HIV before they are used. But infected blood supplies are still a big problem in developing countries, such as Africa.

Other possible causes:

it is possible to be infected with HIV by accidentally piercing your skin with a contaminated needle. However, cases like this are extremely rare.  There have also been a few cases where HIV has been transmitted by contaminated medical or dental equipment which has not been sterilised properly.

Testing, Diagnosis & Treatment

Testing & Diagnosis :

An HIV blood test undertaken within the UK will only show the presence of the virus once it has become established (three months or so after infection).  In other words if you have put yourself at risk, you would have to wait a period of 10/12 weeks before the HIV virus could be formally confirmed by a blood test.  Going for an HIV test can be a dramatic and stressful decision and action for many people as there will be many implications and things to think about if you are diagnosed as HIV positive.  This is why it is important that you accept pre and post counselling.

Testing can be done either by a GP (family doctor) or in a specialist GUM (genito-urinary medicine) clinic. GPs may be asked to disclose details of test results to insurance companies and others making health checks on an individual.  If your HIV test is negative this does not need to be disclosed on application for insurance (see Association of British Insurers Statement of Best Practice on HIV and Insurance). Tests conducted at GUM clinics are subject to stronger legal confidentiality rules. You do not need to be referred by your GP to have a test at a GUM clinic.

AIDS is usually only diagnosed on the basis of an AIDS-related condition (such as an infection normally only contracted by those with a damaged immune system) combined with a positive HIV result. Sometimes, people only become aware of the fact they have HIV when they develop an AIDS-related illness and then have the HIV test, although treatment can still be effective at this stage but.

Treatment  :

The treatment of HIV and AIDS is a specialised area in medicine who work within an HIV or GUM (genito-urinary medicine) clinics.   Treatments include drugs to suppress the virus, treating the conditions that result from the virus, and providing emotional and psychological support for the individual.  GPs are also involved in the care of people with HIV, but usually have little knowledge HIV and treatments.

We often hear the term ‘combination therapy’ when we talk about treatment for HIV, so what does this mean?

Combination therapy :

Combination therapy (medication) is usually started when there are clear signs that a person’s immune system is reaching dangerously low levels. The aim of different medication (usually pills) is to suppress the virus and preserve the immune system for as long as possible.  Today there are a number of antiretroviral drugs, given in combination that can dramatically improve the life expectancy of someone who is diagnosed with HIV.

Prescribing the right combination of treatment is a specialised and complex process, which drugs need to be taken and when to start taking them will also vary from person to person.

Some people may experience serious side effects from the medication, therefore it is important that you discuss any side effects you may experience with your specialist

What Are The Symptoms of HIV?

When you are first infected with HIV, you may not have any symptoms. However, many people experience flu-like symptoms in the first couple of weeks/months which may include:

  • a high temperature and fever,
  • a sore throat,
  • fatigue,
  • a skin rash,
  • muscle aches and pains,
  • headaches,
  • nausea,
  • vomiting, and
  • diarrhoea.

It is important also to remember even if you experience the above symptoms, this does not mean you have been infected with the HIV virus, as these symptoms are associated with a less threatening conditions, such as influenza (flu).  What we are saying is, that if you are reading this page because you believe you have put yourself at risk and had unprotected sex recently, if you experience the above symptoms, don’t sit worrying yourself, convincing yourself you have HIV.

If you have been infected by the HIV virus after the initial infection stage, which can last a few weeks or even months, you may not experience swollen lymph glands and/or night sweats and may generally feel unwell or experience unexplained weight loss or you may experience no symptoms for a number of years, and your HIV may go undetected, this does not mean you cannot pass on the virus to someone else, as you can.

If the HIV virus is undiagnosed/untreated and allowed to spread, your immune system will eventually become severely weakened, that fighting off and being open to a wide variety of serious illnesses such as:

  • infections of the mouth e.g. thrush (oral candidiasis),
  • recurring mouth ulcers,
  • herpes or shingles infections,
  • unusual types of pneumonia,
  • tuberculosis (TB),
  • infections of the brain and eyes,
  • unusual skin problems, and
  • infections of the gastrointestinal tract.
    • Most people with an advanced HIV infection will also experience severe body wasting and weight loss.

If this happens the risk of HIV developing into AIDS will be higher.

Protecting Yourself

It is important that you understand even if you and your partner have an HIV positive diagnosis that you continue to use condoms to protect yourself from further risk.

As like other diseases HIV is no different.  There are different strains of the HIV virus, so by protecting yourself from being infected by a different, more volatile strain of the virus it is recommended that you protect yourself and use a condom during vaginal or anal sex.

Other preventative measures include not sharing needles if you are injecting drugs, and avoiding a blood transfusion in any country that does not screen blood for HIV.