There are more than an estimated 100,000 people living with HIV in the UK and more than 13,500 of these people are undiagnosed (Public Health England, 2016).
What is HIV?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system, normally over a long period of time, and leaves you unable to fight off infections and disease. There is no cure for HIV and if left untreated HIV will develop into AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) - the stage of HIV infection when numerous illnesses that attack the weakened body. However, there are safe and effective treatments – quicker diagnosis of HIV means that you can start receiving treatment earlier, and life expectancy can match that of people who are HIV negative.
How is HIV transmitted?
HIV is mainly spread through unprotected sex (without a condom) with someone who is HIV-positive. It can also occur from sharing a needle with someone who is HIV-positive. Catching HIV from blood transfusion is very rare in the UK but a problem in developing countries. HIV can be carried within blood, semen, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids and breast milk but NOT by saliva or sweat. HIV transmission is a possibility when exchange of these body fluids occur.
Recognising the Signs of HIV
Recognising the symptoms of HIV or being tested for HIV early is vital. Early diagnosis can treat HIV to the point where life expectancy is barely, if at all, affected. It also prevents the HIV carrier unwittingly spreading the infection.
A blood test is the most accurate way of checking for HIV. A small sample of blood is taken (a simple prick of the finger is sufficient) and sent off for testing. Within a few days the test will return positive or negative. A positive result doesn’t always mean you have HIV, you will need to undergo further tests.
You can get tested for HIV at most sexual health clinics, certain GP surgeries and via HIV charities such as the Terrence Higgins Trust. You can also buy an HIV test privately or online, from a trusted medical source. Our HIV Blood Test is an accurate and confidential way of testing for HIV without needing to see a doctor face to face.If you are at risk of HIV e.g. you have a new sexual partner, you have more than one sexual partner, have had sex without a condoms, or are worried you have been exposed to a HIV, you should test. Knowing your HIV status is important, so if you’ve never taken a test, you should. Regular testing is recommended, especially in higher risk groups such as men who have sex with men and sex workers.
Although there is no cure for HIV, early diagnosis means early treatment which makes it much easier to manage the infection.
Always get tested if you believe you might be at risk from HIV. If you have any of the HIV symptoms described below please consult a doctor immediately.
Symptoms of HIV
HIV symptoms in men
In the UK, around two thirds of people receiving specialist HIV care are male. (61,097 in 2015, NAT). Most men infected with HIV will experience a short illness very similar to flu. Symptoms will almost always occur within six weeks of exposure, normally between one and three weeks. This flu-like illness is known as the seroconversion illness. Seroconversion occurs when your body produces antibodies to fight the HIV virus. This battle between the newly transmitted virus and your immune system is what produces the flu-like illness. Symptoms include:
- Fever and high temperature
- Severe headaches
- Sore throat
- Muscle ache
- Joint pain
- Body rash
- Swollen glands (most commonly neck)
- Skin lesions
Estimates suggest at least 80% of newly HIV-positive men will experience symptomatic seroconversion illness. The illness usually lasts between one and two weeks, although certain symptoms such as swollen glands may persist longer. Many people may mistake the symptoms for flu.
HIV symptoms in women
In the UK, women constitute about a third of people receiving specialist HIV care. (27,672 in 2015, NAT). Symptoms of HIV are even more common in women than men. Generally the symptoms are very similar. A brief flu-like illness - the seroconversion illness - will occur within six weeks of transmission. Seroconversion symptoms will persist for a week or two before fading. See the "HIV symptoms in men" section above for information on seroconversion and its symptoms.
Some HIV symptoms are exclusive to women in the asymptomatic stage of HIV:
- Vaginal yeast infections: Typically characterised by soreness and itching in the vaginal area, pain during sex and/or urination, and a white, odourless vaginal discharge. These infections resist the standard medication.
- Unusual menstrual cycles: Completely varies. Periods might be heavier, lighter, more or less frequent, sometimes missed completely.
- Pelvic Inflammatory disease: An infection of the pelvic area that can cause stomach pain, abnormal vaginal discharge, fever, pain during intercourse and a disrupted menstrual cycle.
Asymptomatic stage of HIV
After the initial seroconversion stage, the HIV infection will enter a latency period known as the asymptomatic stage. This stage can last for up to 10 years and sometimes longer. During the asymptomatic stage the HIV-carrier will experience no HIV symptoms, and will often feel perfectly healthy. However the HIV virus is still active and progressively weakening the immune system, and despite displaying no symptoms, carriers can still transmit the HIV virus to others. Eventually, the virus progresses from the asymptomatic stage to the symptomatic stage, where opportunistic infections and cancers cause symptoms to manifest.As previously mentioned, women may experience certain symptoms during the asymptomatic stage of HIV. See the HIV symptoms in women section above.
Symptomatic stage / Advanced HIV
By this stage, the body’s immune system has been severely weakened, and has become susceptible to a host of opportunistic infections and cancers. The compromised immune system cannot fight these infections off, resulting in conditions that the body would previously have been able to resist now proving fatal. Symptoms vary and depend on the transmitted infection(s), but the common symptoms of advanced HIV can include:
- Severe weight loss
- Recurrent fever
- Night sweats
- Fungal infections
- Ongoing diarrhoea
- Extreme fatigue
- Serious illnesses
- Skin lesions
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is not a single illness but the umbrella name for the combinations of illnesses and infections that can develop once the body’s immune system has been weakened by the HIV virus. Detecting HIV earlier is a crucial step in preventing the virus progressing to AIDS.
Do I have HIV?
The initial flu-like symptoms of HIV are generally just similar to flu or a similar condition (e.g. a rash is caused by skin irritation). Experiencing these symptoms does not mean you are HIV-positive. Ask yourself: have I recently been at risk from HIV infection? Most likely this will involve unprotected sex or sharing a needle with somebody. If the answer is ‘yes’ then you should definitely get HIV tested. If the answer is ‘no’ then it is highly unlikely you are HIV-positive, although a test can still provide peace of mind.
Certain groups are more at risk from HIV than most. High risk groups include:
- Men who have sex with men (MSM)
- Sex workers
- People from HIV endemic areas (such as Sub-Saharan Africa)
- People who regularly inject drugs
You should get tested for HIV on a regular basis if you belong to a high risk group.
What if I don’t have HIV symptoms?
Always get tested if you believe you have been at risk from HIV infection. On exceedingly rare occasions the seroconversion illness can take up to a year to manifest. Sometimes the symptoms won’t occur at all. Regular HIV testing is important if you are somebody who might be at risk from HIV: frequently practicing unprotected sex or sharing needles. Even if not, getting tested for HIV once a year is an individually and socially responsible act.
Treatment for HIV is both medical and psychological. It is far too broad a subject for us to adequately discuss here.While there is no cure for HIV, treatments are now very effective in slowing the progress of HIV. Most people living with HIV should enjoy a long and healthy life. You will almost certainly be required to take lifelong daily medications to control the HIV levels in your bloodstream. However successful treatment means those living with HIV can still enjoy a healthy sex life, an unaffected life expectancy and only require one or two doctor visits a year.