Around 86,500 people in the UK are living with HIV, and 6,630 new cases were diagnosed in 2009. Find out how to protect against HIV, and where to get tested if you're worried.
It is estimated that around one quarter (26%) of people who have HIV don't know that they have it.
Of the 6,630 new cases of HIV in 2009, more than half (54%) got infected through heterosexual sex, and 42% through sex between men.
The initial stage of HIV is known as primary HIV infection or seroconversion. Many people develop symptoms, although they might not recognise them at the time. Their symptoms usually occur two to six weeks after they are infected with HIV.
Symptoms of primary HIV infection include:
- sore throat
- joint pain
- muscle pain
- swollen glands (nodes)
- a blotchy rash
These early symptoms are often very mild, so it is easy to mistake them for another condition, such as a cold or glandular fever. However, it is unusual to get these symptoms in association with a rash, so anyone concerned about the risk of HIV infection should request a test.
After the initial symptoms have gone, HIV will often not cause any further symptoms for many years. This is known as asymptomatic HIV infection. During this time, the virus is still reproducing and damaging your immune system.
Want to know more?
- Terence Higgins Trust: First stage of infection – Seroconversion.
- Terence Higgins Trust: Asymptomatic HIV infection.
Late-stage HIV infection
Late stage HIV infection is also known as AIDS infection. Left untreated, HIV will damage your immune system so much that you are likely to develop a serious, life-threatening condition. It typically takes about 10 years for the virus to damage the immune system in this way.
Possible symptoms of a serious infection caused by a damaged immune system include:
- persistent tiredness
- night sweats
- unexplained weight loss
- persistent diarrhoea
- blurred vision
- white spots on your tongue or mouth
- dry cough
- shortness of breath
- a fever of above 37C (100F) that lasts a number of weeks
- swollen glands that last for more than three months
AIDS-related illnesses, such as TB, pneumonia and some cancers, may appear. Many of these, though serious, can be treated to some extent and some are likely to improve if you start treatment and your CD4 count increases.
HIV is passed from one person to another through the direct exchange of bodily fluids. This can happen through unprotected penetrative vaginal or anal sex, as well as through oral sex.
The best way to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections is to restrict bodily contact by using condoms (for penetrative sex and oral sex on penises) and dental dams (for oral sex on vaginas or anuses).
It is important to continue to practice safe sex even if you and your sexual partner both have HIV. This is because it is possible to expose yourself to a new strain of the virus that your ARV medicine will not be able to control.
Knowingly infecting somebody with HIV is a criminal offence.
Condoms come in a variety of shapes, colours, textures, materials and flavours. They are available for both males and females. A condom is the most common and effective form of protection against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. They can be used for anal sex, oral sex performed on men and vaginal sex. HIV can be passed on before ejaculation, through pre-come and vaginal secretions, and from the anus. It is very important that condoms are put on before any sexual contact occurs between the penis, vagina, mouth or anus.
Lubricant is often used to enhance sexual pleasure and safety, by adding moisture to either the vagina or anus during sexual intercourse or other sexual practices. Lubricant can enhance the safety of intercourse by reducing the risk of vaginal or anal tears being caused by dryness or friction. It can also reduce the likelihood of a condom tearing.
Lubricant can be bought in most supermarkets and pharmacies. It is important to use a water-based lubricant (such as K-Y Jelly) rather than an oil-based lubricant (such as Vaseline or massage and baby oil). This is because oil-based lubricants weaken the latex in condoms and can cause them to break or tear. Only water-based lubricants should be used with condoms.
A dental dam is a small sheet of latex that can act as a barrier between the vagina or anus and the mouth to reduce the risk of STI and HIV transmission during oral sex. Dental dams are available in a variety of flavours and colours, and typically come in two forms: as a sheet, which can be spread across the vagina or anus and held in place during oral sex by either the giver or the receiver, and as a mask with elasticised bands, which is held in place around the ears of the person giving oral sex, leaving the hands free.
It is important that dams are only used once, the same side of the dam is always kept against the body, and a new dam is used if a new area of the body is being stimulated. A dam should never be moved from the vagina to the anus or vice versa.
Want to know more?
Intravenous drug use
If you inject drugs, do not share needles as this could expose you to HIV and other blood-borne viruses, such as hepatitis C.
Many local authorities and pharmacies offer needle exchange programmes, where used needles can be exchanged for clean ones.
If you are a heroin user, consider enrolling in a methadone programme. Methadone can be taken as a liquid, so it reduces your risk of getting HIV.
Your GP or drug counsellor should be able to advise you about both needle exchange programmes and methadone programmes.
Want to know more?
- Live Well: Drugs: where to get help.