Understanding HIV

Learn the facts, fight the stigma, stay safe!

Knowledge is power when it comes to HIV/AIDS, and being clued up on the facts will help reduce your risk of becoming infected, and help you get diagnosed early if you are infected.

What is HIV?
  • HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
  • HIV affects the immune system and makes it weak.
  • HIV depletes the number of T-cells which work to protect our body from illness.
  • A person with HIV can appear healthy.
What is AIDS?
  • AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.
  • If left untreated, HIV can weaken the immune system to the point where it is weakened so much that it is called AIDS.
  • AIDS results in so few T-cells in the blood stream the body can no longer defend itself which can lead to death.
  • It can often take a long time for someone with HIV to develop AIDS, often over 8 or more years.
How is HIV transmitted?
  • Many rumours about HIV still exist in the UK as a result of hysteria created at the time the virus emerged in the West.
  • If you know the facts, you can effectively protect yourself from contracting HIV.
  • There are five bodily fluids in which HIV can survive: blood, semen, vaginal fluids, the lining inside the anus, and breast milk. HIV can therefore be transmitted via:
    • Unprotected vaginal or anal sex
    • Sharing needles or syringes
    • From mother to baby before or during birth or by breastfeeding
    • Sharing sex toys with someone infected with HIV
    • Oral sex where the person giving oral sex has mouth ulcers, sores or bleeding gums (less common)
    • Blood transfusion (now very rare in the UK 
  • HIV cannot survive in saliva, sweat, urine, faeces, or on toilet seats or door handles. This means it cannot be transmitted via things like:
    • Hugging or kissing someone who has HIV
    • Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation
    • Using the same toilet seat as someone who has HIV
    • Sharing food or drink with someone has HIV
    • Being sneezed on or coming into contact with spit
    • Being touched by someone who has HIV
    • Using public swimming pools
    • Contact with animals or insects like mosquitoes
How can I reduce my risk of being infected?
  • Do not share needles or syringes - many local authorities and pharmacies offer needle exchange programmes, where used needles can be exchanged for clean ones.
  • Using a condom and other forms of barrier contraception during sexual activity is the best way to protect against sharing bodily fluids like semen, blood, and vaginal fluids.
  • Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication is a medication taken before intercourse, and reduces your risk of getting the virus by almost 100%. It is available to some people who are at high risk of HIV infection. www.iwantprepnow.co.uk is a useful directory for checking your eligibility and accessing the medication.
  • Remember that you always have the right to say no when it comes to having sex and sharing needles.
Should I get tested?
  • Seek medical advice immediately if you believe you have taken a risk which may have exposed you to contracting HIV. The earlier the diagnosis the earlier you can start treatment and avoid becoming seriously ill.
  • Anti-HIV medication (PEP) may stop the infection if you take it within 72 hours of being exposed to the virus.
  • Remember that most people living with HIV may not show symptoms until months, even years after being infected, therefore it’s important to get tested as regularly as possible.
  • The most common test consists of a simple blood test.
  • It is important to remember that while there is no cure, there are medications that can be prescribed to ensure that people with HIV can live a normal, healthy life
Where can I get tested?

The NHS also has a tool you can use to locate HIV testing services near you.

Advice Centre