HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV damages the body's immune system so it cannot fight off infections. HIV can lead to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) otherwise known as 'late stage HIV'.

It is esimated that the number of people living with HIV in the UK (diagnosed and undiagnosed) will reach 100,000 in 2012.

HIV can be passed from one person to another through blood, semen (including pre-cum) and vaginal fluids

It is most commonly transmitted through unprotected vaginal or anal sex, but can also be caught through sharing sex toys or needles and other injecting equipment.

It’s much less common for HIV to be transmitted through oral sex, but there is a greater risk if someone with HIV ejaculates (cums) in your mouth, and you have ulcerated or bleeding gums.

While it is possible for a mother with HIV to pass it onto her baby during pregnancy or childbirth, or through breast milk, this is very rare in the UK - and all expectant mothers should be offered an HIV test during their antenatal care. There are steps that can be taken to reduce the possibility of the child contracting HIV, including giving the mother and child antiretroviral HIV drugs, delivering the child by caesarean and not breastfeeding the baby. This can be discussed as part of your antenatal care.

HIV cannot be passed on through everyday social contact. That means you cannot get HIV from shaking hands, kissing or hugging, using other people's cutlery or cups - or eating food prepared by someone who is HIV positive - sharing towels, toilet seats, or going to swimming pools.

Although men who have sex with men are most at risk of getting HIV, and women who only have sex other women are the least at risk, it is a myth that you can only catch HIV from gay sex.

HIV can be passed on through heterosexual (straight) or homosexual (gay & lesbian) sex. There are a growing number of heterosexuals being diagnosed in the UK each year, and around 1 in 10 new cases of HIV are in young people aged 16-24.

Despite what you may have heard, both circumcised and uncircumcised men can get HIV and pass it on. And, although HIV can be treated, there is currently no known cure.

If you are a gay man, it’s recommended that you take an HIV test at least once a year.


People with HIV may have no symptoms for a long time, often for 10 years or more, but most (about 70-90%) will experience some symptoms soon after infection.

The most common signs are a fever, rash and a severe sore throat - all at the same time.

It’s common for people who experience cold or flu type symptoms to worry that these may be signs of HIV, when often they are just signs of a cold or flu – but, if you experience all of these symptoms at the same time after being in a situation where you think you may have been at risk, you should have an HIV test.

Remember: not everyone will experience symptoms, so if you think you may have been at risk at any point, it’s always best to get tested and find out for sure.


HIV testing has improved a lot in recent years, and it can now be reliably detected a month after infection.

The most common tests involve taking a small sample of blood for analysis, but some clinics offer rapid HIV testing, which give you a result in 20 minutes, or can test you by taking a saliva sample.

Search for your nearest services offering HIV testing here.


HIV is preventable and treatable, but it is not curable. If you are diagnosed with HIV, you will need to discuss your treatment carefully with your doctor. Current treatment consists of a combination of three or more antiretroviral drugs which must be taken every day for life but treatments are still being developed.


Related Articles

  • Male condoms

    Everything you have ever wanted to know about condoms all in one place. Talk about condoms, carry condoms, use condoms. You know it makes sense.

  • Female condoms

    Female condoms are like male condoms, only they fit inside the vagina instead of over the penis. Find out more.

  • How to avoid STIs

    The best way to avoid an STI is to use a condom every time you have sex.

  • Get tested quickly

    Get tested quickly If you're worried you may have an STI the most important thing is to get tested

My Contraception Tool

Check out the new My Contraception Tool

A-Z of sex

Find out who won the UK Sexual Health Awards!

Brook & FPA's campaign

Education For Choice

Say YES to 21st century SRE

Your view

This is a quick comments box we cannot reply.