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What is HIV?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus which can be transmitted from person-to-person through infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids, rectal secretions or breast milk. HIV is so-called because it attacks the body's immune system - the body's defence against disease-causing organisms and substances.

The virus is most commonly passed on through sex without a condom or through sharing infected needles.

What is AIDS?

Left untreated, HIV infection can weaken the immune system to such an extent that a person develops AIDS, which stands for "acquired immunodeficiency syndrome". AIDS is a collection of diseases and symptoms which can arise (only) in HIV-infected individuals, as a result of the body's inability to fight disease.

HIV symptoms

Approximately four to six weeks after a person becomes infected with HIV, symptoms can occur as a result of the body's immune system reacting to the virus. This phase of infection is referred to as "seroconversion", and it is during this period that antibodies against the virus are produced by cells of the immune system. Antibodies are proteins generated by cells of the immune system to help fight disease.

Common symptoms of seroconversion can include any one or more of the following:

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Muscle ache
  • Joint pain
  • Swollen lymph nodes

The above flu-like symptoms can last from a few days to a few weeks, and although most people experience these symptoms within weeks of becoming infected, in some cases symptoms may not appear for years.

Less common symptoms of seroconversion include:

  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Diarrhoea
  • Oesophageal/vaginal/anal ulceration
  • Oral candidiasis (oral thrush)
  • Encephalitis
  • Meningitis

HIV treatment

Although there is currently no cure for HIV infection, anti-retroviral therapy (ART) can be used to supress the virus and halt progression of the disease. ART has substantially reduced the incidence of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and nowadays many people can recover from AIDS. As such, since the development of ART, the number of deaths in the UK due to HIV infection has declined significantly. Moreover, people diagnosed promptly with HIV that start ART early can expect near normal life expectancy.

If your results indicate you may have a blood-borne STI, you will be contacted directly by the Terrence Higgins Trust, regarding confirmatory testing, advice and the availability of other services.

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