What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV damages part of your immune system.

Your immune system is important because it defends your body against infection and disease. Left untreated, HIV can lead to a range of illnesses which weaken the body and can eventually lead to serious complications and death.

There is no cure or vaccine for HIV, however very effective treatment for HIV is now available. People living with HIV who take medication for their condition can expect a near normal healthy life expectancy.

How is HIV passed on?

HIV can be present in the clear fluid your penis produces when you’re sexually excited (pre-cum), your semen (cum), the mucus that lines your anus and your blood. You can only become infected with HIV if one of these body fluids containing HIV gets into your body and passes into your bloodstream. The usual ways in which this occurs for gay and bisexual men is through anal sex without a condom.

What symptoms or signs might I notice if I become HIV positive?

There is no way to know if you have HIV from symptoms, the only way to know is to get tested. Shortly after being infected with HIV, many people experience a short flu like illness that will pass in a matter of weeks.

Symptoms of this may include; fever, rashes, a sore throat and swollen glands. After this period you become HIV-positive and your immune system creates antibodies to fight the infection.

How do you test?

The most common test for HIV is an antibody blood test. This means we will take a small amount of blood which is sent to the laboratory. The result is usually available within two working days. You can phone our secure automated results service for your test result. If your result shows you have HIV we will usually contact you directly to arrange for your ongoing care.

As the HIV test is for HIV antibodies, sometimes even after a negative result, you may be asked to come back 12 weeks after you last had anal sex without a condom for a further test to confirm that you do not have HIV. This is because HIV antibodies can take up to 12 weeks after getting the virus to show up in an HIV test.

It is important to test regularly for HIV, especially if you have had anal sex without a condom. On Thursday evenings we provide a simple finger prick HIV test and result within 60 seconds, however if the test is reactive (i.e. indicates you have HIV), this still needs to be confirmed by a full blood test. If it is not reactive this indicates you do not have HIV. As with the full blood test you may still need to retest 12 weeks after you last had anal sex without a condom.

How will I be treated?

Highly effective anti-viral medication is now available to treat HIV, preventing further damage to your immune system and allowing you to live a near normal lifespan that was not previously possible a few years ago.

How can I avoid HIV?

If you have anal sex, the best way to prevent getting or passing on HIV is to use condoms and lube. Some other factors can also affect the risk of passing HIV during sex. If you are already HIV-positive, being on treatment and having an undetectable viral load means you are very unlikely to pass on HIV.

However, also having an STI - even if you have undetectable viral load - increases the risk of transmission. Going for regular STI check ups and avoiding ejaculating inside your partner will reduce this risk. Using condoms and lube is still the best way to prevent HIV and STIs being passed on.

Giving oral sex is very low risk for HIV, however having cuts or sores in your mouth, having an STI in your throat, or having had recent dental work done increases the risk from oral sex.

If you've had anal sex without a condom (or your condom broke or came off during sex) with someone who has HIV or whose HIV status you do not know, you should think about taking Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP).

If you are HIV positive and think you may have exposed a partner to HIV, let them know about PEP and where they can get it. It’s a 4 week course of anti-HIV drugs which may prevent HIV infection, but only if you start the treatment as soon as possible after being exposed.

PEP is most effective when started within 24 hours of exposure and can be effective up to 72 hours (3 days) after exposure. To be assessed for PEP, contact Sandyford during the day or Accident and Emergency Services when Sandyford is closed.

Pre Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) is similar to PEP in that it uses similar anti-HIV drugs, but would be used prior to sex by people who are HIV negative and who are at risk of HIV. PrEP is available from Sandyford and Steve Retson Project to those who meet the eligibility criteria.

Clinical trials in the UK show that PrEP could be highly effective in preventing transmission of HIV.