A red AIDs awareness ribbon on a grey knitwear background

What is it?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that infects the immune system of your body. It is caught through contact with the blood or bodily fluids (eg by sexual contact) of someone who is already infected with the virus. Although it cannot be cured completely it is now considered to be a disease that can be controlled and that you can live with for many years.

What goes wrong?

HIV gradually attacks your immune system (the system in your body which normally protects you against infections), weakening your ability to defend yourself from diseases and infections. When people first get infected, they often think they have the flu. This is usually a short illness and people then feel better, usually then leading a normal life for several years - even if you are not treated. All this time HIV is slowly attacking your immune system.

AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is when the HIV virus really kicks in and you start to suffer from all sorts of illnesses that people with normal immune systems can fight off without even noticing. At this stage people can start to lose weight, get fevers, lung and eye infections and skin cancer. These end stages of HIV can usually be avoided now by taking medicines.

It's caught by:

Having unprotected vaginal or anal sex (including, though much more rarely, oral sex) or by sharing needles with someone who's got the HIV virus. In the past it was also caused by blood transfusions using HIV-contaminated blood. ALL blood for transfusion is now rigorously checked and this way of catching HIV is not a problem anymore. Babies can get it direct from their mother's blood when they are in her womb, during birth or from breastfeeding if the mother is infected.

It is not caught by:

Kissing, hugging, touching, lavatory seats, door knobs, drinking glasses, sharing toothbrushes, mosquitoes or swimming pools.

How not to get it

Use a condom. Better still, stick to one partner. Don't sleep with anyone who might have a dodgy sex history. (Dodgy = sex with drug addicts, prostitutes, or anyone who's put themselves at risk, gay or straight.) Remember that the test for HIV doesn't become positive for 3 or 4 months after someone gets infected. And even if you don't feel ill or are having treatment, you are still infectious to other people if you have sex with them or share needles.

Who gets it?

Anyone can get HIV - male or female, straight or gay, black or white. Some people used to think it was only a problem for gay men and drug users, but now most new infections in the UK are in heterosexual people, so everyone should be careful.

How to tell if you've got it:

HIV is diagnosed with a blood test. This can be done after a discussion with your GP or at a specialist Sexual Health (or Genito-urinary Medicine) clinic. Because HIV is now considered to be a controllable disease that you can live with, there is no reason not to get tested if you are worried. Of course it is much better to always try and minimise your risk of getting it in the first place.

What to do if you have it

Once you are infected there is, as yet, no way yet to get rid of the virus from your body completely, but modern medications mean that most people can lead a relatively normal life with HIV. These medications are called anti-retroviral drugs and have to be taken every day. People with HIV often do not start taking them as soon as they are diagnosed, but are monitored by specialist doctors regularly.