HIV gradually damages the immune system and reduces the ability to fight infections and disease. Initially these can be quite mild or minor infections. But for many people the damage becomes severe and the immune system is unable to protect people from life threatening illnesses. AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection, when your body can no longer fight life-threatening infections. With early diagnosis and effective treatment, most people with HIV will not go on to develop AIDS.
Anyone who has had unprotected sex may be at risk of HIV. However, men who have sex with men and people from certain geographic areas are more at risk. It can also be passed on by sharing infected needles or from a HIV-positive mother to her child during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding.
Most people who are infected with HIV experience a short, flu-like illness that occurs two to six weeks after infection. Not everyone experiences early symptoms, so you should still take an HIV test if you have put yourself as risk. HIV often causes no symptoms for several years, so the only way to know whether you have HIV is to take the test.
If you think you might be at risk, you should seek medical advice immediately. The earlier HIV is detected, the more likely it is that treatment will be successful.
HIV testing is available on the NHS free of charge to anyone.
The test for HIV is a simple blood test. If you test positive for HIV, you will undergo a number of tests to monitor the progress of the infection to work out when HIV treatment should be started.
There is no cure for HIV, but by properly managing your condition – taking your medication correctly and avoiding illness – most people will live a long and healthy life.
Taking medication every day will prevent damage to the immune system. Today medication has been simplified and usually only involves taking one or two pills a day.
Because HIV is a long-term condition, you will be in regular contact with your healthcare team, who will review your treatment on an ongoing basis.
The main way to prevent HIV infection is to avoid activities that put you at risk, such as having sex without a condom and sharing needles.