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HIV is a virus most commonly caught by having unprotected sex or by sharing infected needles and other injecting equipment to inject drugs. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus attacks the immune system, and weakens your ability to fight infections and disease. AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection, when your body can no longer fight life-threatening infections. There is no cure for HIV, but there are treatments to enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life.

Cause and Risk

HIV is not spread as easily as some other viruses, such as colds or flu.

HIV is found in the body fluids of an infected person, which includes semen and vaginal fluids, blood, inside the anus and breast milk.

HIV cannot be transmitted by saliva alone. But the saliva of a person with HIV can be infectious if it contains blood or other body fluids.

The most common way of getting HIV in the UK is by unprotected sexual contact with a person who has HIV. This can include vaginal, anal and oral sex. According to statistics from the Health Protection Agency, 95% of those diagnosed with HIV in the UK in 2010 acquired HIV as a result of sexual contact.

Other ways of getting HIV include:

    using a contaminated needle, syringe or other injecting equipment to inject drugs

    transmission from mother to baby, before or during birth, or by breastfeeding


Most people who are infected with HIV experience a short, flu-like illness that occurs two to six weeks after infection. After this, HIV often causes no symptoms for several years.

The flu-like illness that often occurs a few weeks after HIV infection is also known as seroconversion illness. It's estimated that up to 80% of people who are infected with HIV experience this illness.

The most common symptoms are:

    fever (raised temperature)

    sore throat

    body rash

Other symptoms can include:


    joint pain

    muscle pain

    swollen glands (nodes)

The symptoms, which can last up to four weeks, are a sign that your immune system is putting up a fight against the virus.

Diagnosis and Treatment

There is no cure for HIV, but treatments are much more successful than they used to be, enabling people with the virus to stay healthy and live longer.

    Emergency HIV drugs

    If you think you have been exposed to the virus within the last 72 hours (three days), anti-HIV medication may stop you becoming infected.

If you test positive:

If you are diagnosed with HIV, you will have regular blood tests to monitor the progress of the virus before starting treatment.

You will not normally need to start treatment until the virus has begun weakening your immune system.

This is determined by mainly by measuring your levels of CD4, which are infection-fighting cells, in your blood.

Treatment is usually recommended to begin when your CD4 count falls to 350 or below, whether or not you have any symptoms. Treatment is also recommended to as soon as possible if your CD4 count is getting close to 350.

The aim of the treatment is to reduce the level of HIV in the blood and prevent or delay any HIV-related illnesses.

Further Information

By properly managing your condition – taking your medication correctly and avoiding illness – you will be able to live as normal a life as possible.

HIV treatment only works if you take your pills on time, every time. Missing even a few doses will increase the risk of your treatment not working. It can be helpful to develop a daily routine around taking your medication, so that you do not forget to take it.

Many of the medicines used to treat HIV can react in unpredictable ways if you take other types of medicines. These include herbal remedies such as St John's Wort, recreational drugs such as cocaine, and over-the-counter medicines.

If you have HIV, you should take extra precautions to prevent exposure to infection.

Wash your hands regularly, particularly after going to the toilet, before and after preparing food, and after spending time in crowded places.

Recommended Links

The British Red Cross site for HIV advice:

The NHS HIV page:

PositivelyUK site - For people living with HIV, from people living with HIV:

HIVaware website:

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