Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that weakens the body’s immune system. If HIV weakens the immune system so much it can’t fight infections, this is known as AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). With early diagnosis and treatment, most people with HIV will not develop AIDS. In the UK, doctors call AIDS ‘late-stage HIV’ or ‘advanced HIV.’

The virus can be passed on through bodily fluids of an infected person. This includes blood, semen (including pre-cum) and vaginal fluids. HIV is not spread through saliva (spit), tears, urine (wee), faeces (poo), nasal mucus (snot) or sweat. HIV is spread by:

  • Unprotected sex – anal, vaginal and sometimes oral.
  • Sharing sex toys
  • Infected blood – e.g., blood transfusions or sharing injecting equipment.
  • HIV positive mother to child – during birth and through breastfeeding.


Most people with HIV will experience a short, flu-like illness. This can cause a sore throat, fever, tiredness, aching joints, swollen glands and a rash a couple of weeks after getting the virus. These are signs that the immune system is responding to the virus and developing antibodies. HIV tests take a small sample of blood to look for these antibodies.

Following this flu-like illness many people remain symptom free for years. They may look and feel well. Some people may not experience the flu-like illness at all. If untreated, the virus will multiply. Over time it attacks a person’s immune system and causes immune system damage. This means that the body cannot fight other infections or diseases.

Symptoms of a weak immune system include:

  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhoea that lasts longer than a week
  • Night sweats
  • Recurring infections
  • Serious life-threatening illnesses.


HIV cannot be cured, but symptoms can be treated. HIV is treated with anti-retroviral drugs during Antiretroviral Therapy (ART). The drugs stop the virus multiplying. This gives the immune system chance to repair itself.

If you think you have been exposed to HIV it is important to be tested – even if you don’t have symptoms. Any delay could allow the virus to damage your immune system. Starting treatment early is important.

Emergency treatment

If you have been exposed to HIV in the last 72 hours (three days) it’s possible to take anti-HIV medication. This medication is called PEPSE (post-exposure prophylaxis after sexual exposure). PEP is a 28-day treatment that it may stop you becoming infected.


If your partner has HIV and you do not, you may be able to take prevention medication to lower your risk. This medication is called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is for HIV-negative people to reduce their risk of infection. PrEP is available in England at sexual health clinics.

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