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HIV FAQs

Although there is no cure for HIV, treatments are now very effective, enabling people with HIV to live long and active lives. You can only be certain you have HIV if you get an HIV test.

HIV stands for Human Immuno-deficiency Virus.

Once in the body, if left untreated, the virus weakens the immune system by attacking the cells that help the body fight off infections and diseases.

There is no cure or vaccine for HIV. However, with early diagnosis, HIV is now a treatable and manageable condition.

HIV can be treated by taking antiretroviral (ART) medication. Although it can’t be completely cured, effective treatment means you can live a long healthy life. If you start treatment early, after a few months you should have the virus under control. This means that you won’t transmit HIV to other people through sexual contact.

HIV is found in blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk.

The most common ways of transmitting HIV are through unprotected sex (sex without condoms), including oral, vaginal and anal sex, and sharing injecting equipment. It can also be passed to a child during birth or pregnancy.

The virus can only be passed to someone else if the person living with HIV has a detectable viral load – meaning that the levels of HIV in the person’s blood are high enough to cause onward transmission.

Someone living with diagnosed HIV and taking effective medication can reach a point where the virus is undetectable in the blood. This means the levels of HIV are so low they cannot pass the virus on to HIV negative people.

HIV cannot pass through unbroken skin and is normally transmitted by unprotected sex (sex without condoms).

HIV cannot pass through unbroken skin so there is no risk of passing on HIV from casual social contact.

The symptoms of a recent infection with HIV can differ from person to person and some people may not get any symptoms at all.

Around one to four weeks after becoming infected with HIV, some people will experience symptoms that can feel like the flu. This may last up to two weeks, and you may only get some of the flu symptoms such as fever, body rash, sore throat, swollen glands, headache, or fatigue – or none at all.

If it’s been less than 72 hours since the condom broke, you may be able to take medication that could prevent you from getting infected with HIV, even if your partner is HIV-positive. This medication is called post-exposure prophylaxis.

If it’s been longer than 72 hours, PEP will not protect you from HIV, and you will need to explore HIV testing options. It takes 12 weeks (3 months) for the antibodies to HIV to show up in blood. So, you need to wait for 12 weeks from when you were at risk of being infected for the test to give you an accurate result. This is called the window period.

The test may be able to pick up a more recent infection within 12 weeks. However, for a reliable result we advise to wait 12 weeks before having the test.

If you are tested within the window period and have a negative result, we will advise you to have another test when 12 weeks after exposure has passed. This will ensure that no infection is missed.

HIV is found only in body fluids, so you cannot get HIV by shaking someone’s hand or giving them a hug (or by using the same toilet or towel). While low levels of HIV can be found in saliva, sharing cups or utensils has never been shown to transmit HIV.

No. HIV does not survive outside the body and fluids like sweat and saliva that are typically secreted during these activities have never been shown to transmit HIV.

While complications from HIV infection remain a possibility, current treatments and medications are giving people with HIV a positive prognosis and normal life span. This makes patients living with HIV vulnerable to the same health conditions that affect all people as they age. This is why it is important to maintain good health throughout your life.

All Spectrum’s sexual health clinics offer HIV testing.

If you’re aged 16 or over you can also request a ​freeSTI self-sampling kit, which allows you to get tested from home.

Anyone who has sex without a condom could be putting themselves at risk. However, some groups in the UK are disproportionately affected by HIV.

  • Around 1 in 25 men who have sex with men (including gay men and bisexual men) are living with HIV, compared to around 1 in 525 people in the UK population overall. This is because the likelihood of HIV transmission is higher through anal sex versus vaginal sex.
  • Among heterosexuals, black African and Caribbean women and men are disproportionately affected by HIV.
  • People who inject drugs are at risk of acquiring HIV if they share injecting equipment.

There is no reason why an HIV positive person and an HIV negative person can’t enjoy a relationship together, and many do.

HIV treatment is now so effective, most people living with HIV in the UK have an undetectable viral load and cannot pass on HIV during sex, even when not using condoms.

If someone living with HIV has a detectable viral load, they can use condoms or their partner can take PrEP to prevent HIV transmission.

Both HIV negative and HIV positive people should also consider using condoms and undergo regular sexual health checks, particularly when embarking on new relationships, to protect against other STIs.