What is it and how can you catch it?
Human immunodeficiency virus, commonly referred to as HIV, is a virus that damages your immune system and weakens your ability to fight everyday infections and disease. Left untreated and unmanaged, the virus can lead to the development of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), which refers to the life threatening infections that occur as a result of an immune system weakened by HIV.
HIV can be transmitted in a number of different ways, but involves the exchange of bodily fluids (semen, vaginal and anal fluids, blood and breast milk) from an infected person to a non-infected person (it cannot be transmitted through saliva, sweat or urine). This means that HIV can be transmitted through sex, anal sex and oral sex (although, the chances are much lower with oral sex), as well as during pregnancy, breast-feeding and other non-sexual ways.
Who is at risk?
Anyone who has unprotected sex is potentially at risk, so it's important to take proper precautions. If you do not know your sexual partner well, and are not sure whether they have had a recent sexual health check up, it is important to use a condom and an oral dam for oral sex.
HIV doesn't discriminate - anyone can catch it but research has shown that there are certain groups of people who have an elevated risk of catching it. People who have unprotected sex with multiple partners have a higher risk as well as men who have sex with men, simply because transmission of the virus is easier through anal sex. People who are users of intravenous drugs such as heroin are also at an elevated risk, as contaminated, shared needles can transmit the infection. Finally, people who were born in Africa have an elevated risk due to the higher prevalence in the general population.
What are the symptoms?
Most people experience a short flu-like illness 2-6 weeks after infection, which typically lasts 1-2 weeks. After this, HIV may not present any further symptoms for years, until the virus has caused more significant damage to your immune system. Therefore, if you believe you are at risk or fall into one of the high risk groups, you should have an HIV test, even if you feel well.
What is the test?
A test for HIV will involve giving a small sample of blood. This can either be done via a traditional blood test, where blood is drawn from a vein and a small sample is collected into a vial, which is then sent to the laboratory for analysis.
Many sexual health clinics now offer a finger prick test - a far less invasive test that involves a virtually pain-free prick to the tip of your finger. The nurse or doctor then squeezes a tiny amount of blood from your finger to test. The results to finger prick tests are often instant, it's known as a "rapid results" test, while full blood samples may take up to one week to come back from the lab. For those who aren't able to attend a clinic, there are also at-home finger prick tests, that you can order online and posted back for analysis.
The type or test you take and when you take the test will heavily depend on when you might have been exposed to the virus. If you have been exposed within the past three days or 72 hours, you should visit your local health centre or sexual health clinic immediately for post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to help prevent the virus developing. Signs of HIV don't show up on blood tests immediately; if you are having a blood test, the results will only be accurate four weeks after exposure, while results to a finger-prick test will only be accurate after three months. It's important to be honest when visiting your clinic so you receive the correct test.
What is the treatment?
While there is no complete cure to HIV, there are very effective treatments available that allow people with the virus to live a relatively normal, long and healthy life. The first treatment option is PEP, but this is only effective immediately after exposure - it must be started within 72 hours.
If you are positive for HIV, you will have regular blood tests to determine the amount of the virus in your blood, and the levels of the cells in your immune system. Depending on the results, you will receive antiretroviral drugs that stop the virus from replicating in your body, that you will have to take every day.