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HIV/AIDS Symptoms and Testing

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This is a virus which affects humans and it can gradually damage an infected person’s immune system, which we need to work properly to fight infection and illnesses. Without treatment and over a number of years, the virus can reduce the body’s ability to fight these infections and illnesses. However people living with HIV and on treatment, are much more likely to remain healthy and well.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is a term used when a person’s immune system begins to struggle to do its job and people begin to develop a number of infections and illnesses that they wouldn’t normally get if their immune system were healthy. This is because of the damage caused by HIV. This progression to developing AIDS can be successfully stopped if HIV treatment is started.

Main Sources of Infection

The body fluids that contain enough HIV to infect someone are:

  • seminal fluid (cum)
  • vaginal fluids, including menstrual fluids (period blood)
  • breast milk
  • blood
  • the mucus found in the rectum (the bottome)
  • pre-cum (the fluid that the penis produces for lubrication before ejaculation)

Signs and Symptoms

Most people do not have signs or symptoms to tell them that they are infected with HIV. However if they do, the first symptoms can appear within 2 – 4 weeks of infection(e.g. ‘Flu-like illnesses, sore throat, swollen glands and a rash). This is called a ‘seroconversion illness’. This soon settles down and then most people will have no symptoms for years.

As HIV becomes more advanced then symptoms of a weakened immune system start to appear.

Common symptoms of infection include:

  • unintentional weight loss
  • chronic diarrhoea
  • recurrent infections e.g. chest infections
  • skin rashes, especially on your face, genitals or anus
  • an increase in herpes ulcers or thrush infections in your mouth and genitals
  • sweats, especially at night
  • unusual tiredness
  • nausea or loss of appetite
  • swollen lymph glands in the neck, groin or armpits.

These symptoms can all be caused by many common conditions other than HIV and so do not mean that you are infected with HIV. However, if you experience all or some of these symptoms and you think that you may have been at risk of HIV at any time, it is a good idea to get a test. You may have been at risk of HIV if you have had any unprotected sex or have taken part in higher risk behaviours such as sharing injecting equipment when using recreational drugs or steroids, having unprotected sex with lots of different partners, having unprotected sex with someone who is HIV positive. It is also possible for a HIV positive female to pass the infection to her baby, this can occur during pregnancy, at birth or through breastfeeding.

HIV Testing

Knowing that you are HIV positive is so much better for your long term health, as you can start treatment early, which means that you will stay healthy and well for longer and live as long as most people who do not have HIV . Effective HIV therapy also prevents transmission of the virus to others. HIV testing can either be done by a sample of blood being taken from your arm or by using a pin prick test on the ends of your finger.

Why test?

  • Treatment is extremely effective and easy to take. There are so many different options now, so it is worth knowing if you have HIV.
  •  You are much less likely to pass on HIV when you are on treatment, so testing can improve your health and wellbeing and protect others too.
  • The longer someone goes untested and untreated, there is more chance that the treatment will not work as well as it would have if it had been started sooner.
  • Not having a test does not make the virus go away.