Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that damages the body’s immune system so it cannot fight off infections. It is most commonly transmitted (passed on) through vaginal or anal sex without using a condom (unprotected sex).
HIV is preventable and treatable, but it is not curable. The earlier that someone with HIV gets a diagnosis, the more likely it is that further problems can be prevented.
There are dedicated services available for people living with HIV across Cornwall, led by consultants and supported by specialist HIV nurses. They will look after people from all ages, backgrounds and genders. It’s their job to explain everything, make you feel at ease and not to judge you.
HIV is most commonly passed on through unprotected (without a condom) vaginal or anal sex.
It can also be passed from mother to child at birth, or transmitted when injecting drug users share needles. In rare cases, HIV can be transmitted through transfusion of infected blood.
People at higher risk of contracting HIV are:
Condoms and lubricant are a simple and very effective way of preventing HIV infection. You can get free condoms from Brook's sexual health and contraception services, as well as some GP surgeries and pharmacies. If you’re under 25 you can also get free condoms at a range of other outlets as part of the Condom Distribution Scheme. You can also purchase them in pharmacies, supermarkets and online.
HIV can’t be tested until four weeks after exposure to the virus. The test does not detect the virus itself but the antibodies that your body has developed to fight it.
Testing for HIV involves taking a small sample of blood for analysis. The test is either sent away to a laboratory and results come back in a few days, or same-day tests can give an instant result.
It is also possible to test a saliva sample or to test blood taken from pricking the finger with a needle.
Anyone can get a HIV test at a Brook service.
If you are over 18, you are able to order a free HIV test kit to complete at home.
If you think you may have been exposed to HIV within the last 72 hours (three days), it is also possible to take anti-HIV medication called PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) which may stop you becoming infected.
PEP is most effective if taken within the first 24 hours, though can be taken up to 72 hours after exposure.
PEP is a 28-day treatment of powerful drugs and is not guaranteed to work. It is only recommended after high-risk of exposure (for example, if a partner is known to be HIV positive).
You can get PEP from any sexual health service. If you can't find a clinic open near you, you can also access PEP from any Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust Accident and Emergency Department (A&E).
Most people will experience no signs or symptoms of HIV - this is why testing is important. However, occasionally the HIV infection may cause a flu like illness a few weeks after infection. Symptoms can include:
After this, people with HIV usually remain symptom free for several years.
However, as their immune system becomes weaker they are less able to fight common infections, for example, pneumonia or tuberculosis. As the immune system also plays a role in preventing the development of cancer, people with HIV are more likely to acquire certain cancers.
The earlier that someone with HIV gets a diagnosis, the more likely it is that these problems can be prevented. If you think you are at risk of HIV take a test as soon as possible.
If you test positive for HIV, you will have an initial discussion with a doctor or specialist nurse and the opportunity to ask questions. You will then be referred to an HIV treatment service to begin treatment, known as antiretroviral therapy (ART) or highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), straight away.
HIV treatment can't cure HIV, but it can help people with HIV live longer, healthier lives and protect their partners by stopping HIV transmission once the viral load is undetectable.
Find out more about HIV treatment from the Terrance Higgins Trust.
Without effective HIV treatment, the virus can attack and weaken your immune system. The long term impact of this is that you're likely to become vulnerable to illnesses (for example, heart attack, stroke and some cancers) and infections that you would otherwise have been able to fight off.
Treatment protects you. A person with HIV who is taking treatment and has an undetectable viral load cannot pass on HIV and can expect to live a normal lifespan.