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Find out about the symptoms, causes and treatment of HIV.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that damages the body’s immune system so it cannot fight off infections. HIV is most commonly transmitted (passed on) through vaginal or anal sex without using a condom.

In 2019, it was estimated that there are 105,200 people living with HIV in the UK.

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS? 
AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the name used to describe a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that happen when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus. 

While AIDS cannot be transmitted from one person to another, the HIV virus can. 

With an early diagnosis and effective treatments, most people with HIV will not develop any AIDS-related illnesses and will live a near-normal lifespan. 

Thanks to the progression of treatment for HIV in recent years, it is likely that people with HIV will not go on to develop AIDS, and will live long and healthy lives. Also, taking effective HIV treatment and being undetectable significantly reduces the risk of passing HIV on to other people. This is called undetectable=untransmissable (U=U). Research shows that 89% of people living with HIV in the UK are virally suppressed, meaning they can’t pass the virus on to others. 

While HIV is preventable and treatable, there is currently no cure. The earlier that someone with HIV gets a diagnosis, the more likely it is that further problems can be prevented. 

1 in 16 people living with HIV in the UK do not know that they have the virus, so it is important to test regularly for HIV infection (at least once a year, or whenever you have a new sexual partner). 

Signs and symptoms of HIV

Some people will experience no signs or symptoms of HIV. However, most people may experience a flu-like illness a few weeks after infection. Symptoms can include: 

  • Fever (raised temperature) 
  • Body rash 
  • Sore throat 
  • Swollen glands 
  • Headaches 
  • Upset stomach 
  • Joint aches and pains 
  • Muscle pains 

After this, people with HIV usually show no symptoms for several years. 

As the immune system becomes weaker, a person with HIV will be less able to fight common infections, for example, pneumonia or tuberculosis. They may experience symptoms such as: 

  • Weight loss 
  • Persistent diarrhoea 
  • Night sweats 
  • Infections that keep returning 
  • Serious life-threatening illnesses 

Because the immune system also plays a role in preventing the development of cancer, people with HIV are also more likely to acquire certain cancers. 

The earlier that someone with HIV gets a diagnosis, the more likely it is that these problems can be prevented. If you think you are at risk of HIV, you should take a test as soon as possible.  

How HIV is transmitted

HIV lives in the blood, semen (including pre-come) and vaginal fluids. HIV is transmitted when one of these fluids from someone with HIV enters someone else’s blood. The most common way for HIV to be transmitted from one person to another is through having unprotected vaginal or anal sex. This is because these are the types of sex which are most likely to cause tearing of the skin, which gives access to the bloodstream. 

HIV can be transmitted through: 

  • Vaginal sex 
  • Anal sex 
  • Sharing sex toys 
  • Sharing needles (find out more about drugs)
  • Oral sex: the risk of this is much lower, but there is a greater risk if someone with HIV ejaculates (comes) in your mouth, and you have ulcerated or bleeding gums. 
  • Pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding: this is very rare in the UK. 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. 

Bodily fluids such as urine, sweat or saliva do not contain enough of the virus to infect another person. You cannot get HIV from shaking hands, kissing or hugging, using other people’s cutlery or cups, sharing towels, toilet seats, or going to swimming pools. 

How to protect against HIV


Condoms and lubricant are very effective at preventing HIV infection. Condoms prevent the transmission of bodily fluids from one person to another, while lubricant reduces the chances of tearing the skin during sex. You can get free condoms on the NHS, and from sexual health clinics such as Brook. You can also purchase condoms in pharmacies, supermarkets and online.  

Find out more about condoms.

Top tip
Whenever you are using lube, make sure it is water based rather than oil based so it doesn’t damage the latex of the condom.

PrEP and PEP 

PrEP is a pill you can take before sex that offers near complete protection from HIV. It is a very effective tool for people at risk of HIV, especially those who may find it difficult to use condoms every time. PrEP is now available on the NHS. 

If you have been exposed to HIV in the last three days, then a short course of anti-HIV medication (PEP) can prevent you contracting the infection. If you think you may have been exposed to HIV in the last three days, you should get in touch with your local clinic. Alternatively, you can get PEP from A&E. 

Find out more about PrEP and PEP.

Testing for HIV

HIV can’t be tested until at least four weeks after exposure to the virus, with more accurate results if the test is done six weeks after exposure to the virus. The test does not detect the virus itself but the antibodies that your body has developed to fight it. 

Testing for HIV involves taking a small sample of blood for analysis. The test is either sent away to a laboratory and results come back in a few days, or same-day tests can give an instant result. If you are getting a test in clinic, this is usually from a nurse who will take a blood sample with a needle.  

Depending on where you live, you also might be able to order an STI home test kit for HIV or get tested at a community location if Point of Care Testing is available.  

Order an HIV and syphilis kit

Freetesting.hiv provide free HIV and syphilis kits to anyone aged 16+ living in England.

You may also be able to order a home STI kit for other STIs as well as HIV from other providers.

Point of Care Testing

In some areas, trained professionals also go to community locations to test for HIV where you can get the results within less than 30 minutes. This is known as Point of Care Testing or rapid HIV testing. To complete the test, a sample of saliva from your mouth or a small spot of blood from your finger is taken. This sample does not need to be sent to a laboratory and the result is available within a few minutes.

It is also possible to buy other HIV self-testing kits online but it is important that you look for a CE quality assurance mark as poor quality tests are available and may not give you an accurate result. 

Getting treated 

If your HIV test comes back as ‘reactive’, your health practitioner may need to do a confirmation test first (if you tested via a postal test or a rapid HIV test). 

If your test is confirmed positive, your health practitioner will be able to support you to access follow-up care, support and treatment, to ensure you live a full and healthy life. They can also offer you support on telling your partners and helping them access HIV testing, PEP and follow up support. 

There is currently no cure for HIV, but there are treatments that enable people to live a long and healthy life. Most treatments for HIV involve taking anti-viral medications. 

Taking effective HIV medication so that the virus becomes undetectable in your body also means that you cannot pass on the virus to sexual partners. 

What will happen if I don’t get treated? 

Without effective HIV treatment, the virus can attack and weaken your immune system. The long-term impact of this is that you’re likely to become vulnerable to illnesses (for example, heart attack, stroke and some cancers) and infections that you would otherwise have been able to fight off. 

Treatment protects you. A person with HIV who is taking treatment and has an undetectable viral load (U=U) cannot pass on HIV to other people and can expect to live a normal lifespan. 

Help and Support with HIV 

If you are diagnosed with HIV, your local sexual health service or GP can help you manage your health and access services, information, advice and support.  

There are also lots of organisations who can provide support, such as:  

  • LIVLife: Developed with people living with HIV (PLHIV) for PLHIV, the LIVLife website aims to provide trusted information based on current research and insight from HIV communities, including individuals who wish to share their stories. 
    Visit the LIVLife website. 
  • Terrence Higgins Trust: The UKs leading HIV charity, Terrence Higgins Trust provide information, support and resources for people living with HIV and those newly diagnosed. 
    Visit the Terrence Higgins Trust website. 
  • CHIVA: CHIVA’s mission is to ensure that children, young people and families living with HIV become healthier, happier and more in control of their own futures. 
    Visit the CHIVA website. 
  • Positively UK: Positively UK provides peer-led support, advocacy and information to everyone living with HIV to effectively manage any aspect of their diagnosis, care and life with HIV. 
    Visit the Positively UK website. 

HIV in schools campaign

This short film was made as part of the 2015 HIV in school campaign by Chiva, a registered charity working across the UK and Ireland to improve care for HIV positive children and their families.

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