Trying to understand HIV and all the terminology can be tricky so we've put together this FAQ section which will answer some of the questions or concerns you may have.
What is HIV?
HIV stands for:
You may also see the acronym PLWHIV. Which stands for People Living with HIV. We use this term to highlight that people are living very healthy lives with HIV.
What does HIV do?
HIV is a virus which, over time and left untreated, will impact and destroy the immune system. This means that the body becomes less able to fight off infections and germs and you can take longer to recover. These days there is medication that can control the virus, preventing its impact on a person living with HIV's health and allowing them to live a normal and healthy life.
What is the difference between HIV & AIDS?
AIDS stands for Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome and is a medical term which is used when HIV has had a significant impact on a person's immune system and they have developed one or more opportunistic illnesses. These are illnesses which take advantage of the body in it's weakened state. Due to the negative connotations of AIDS, many medical professionals now use Advanced HIV as this is is essentially what an AIDS diagnosis refers to. Despite what many people believe it's not possible to 'catch' AIDS or pass AIDS from one person to another. Due to the advances in HIV care and medication, if someone receives a positive diagnosis for HIV and begins treatment to control the virus, there is no reason why they should ever receive a diagnosis of Advanced HIV.
Sometimes if a person has been living with undiagnosed HIV for a while, this can impact on their immune system and they may receive their HIV diagnosis after becoming unwell(we call this late diagnosis). In these circumstances, and with the right medical care most people go back to living healthy lives. As with most illnesses, the quicker HIV is diagnosed the less chance it has to impact on a person's health. This is why regular testing and knowing your HIV status is so important.
Would I know if I have HIV?
HIV doesn't always come with symptoms, which is why if a person is not testing regularly, HIV can be left to impact on their immune system and they may receive a late diagnosis. Within 14 days of a recent HIV infection some people may experience the following symptoms
- severe flu-like symptoms
- sore throat and fever
- rash on the chest
- nausea and diarrhoea
However, it's important to remember that not everyone experiences symptoms and each person's experience of these symptoms can differ. People can become anxious when they believe they may have exposed themselves to HIV, misinterpreting everyday ailments and convincing themselves they are experiencing symptoms of a recent HIV infection. If you believe you may have exposed yourself to HIV it's important to try and stay calm. You can talk things through with our staff who will look at your specific risk and discuss your options for testing.
Like with most illnesses, there is lots of conflicting information out there on the internet. Try not to overwhelm yourself by reading too much before you have spoken with a professional who works in sexual health, such as member of staff from The Eddystone Trust.
How is HIV transmitted?
HIV lives in the bodily fluids such as cum (semen), blood, pre-cum, breast milk, and vaginal fluids of someone who is living with HIV. However HIV is not easily passed between people. For HIV to be acquired the virus needs to have a route into the body so that it can enter the bloodstream. The most common ways HIV can enter the body are
- During condomless anal or vaginal sex
- Needle sharing, for example sharing injecting equipment
Despite some of the myths it is not possible to acquire HIV from another person from holding hands, kissing, hugging, sharing a drinking glass, touching door handles, sitting on a toilet seat etc.
How can I test for HIV?
HIV testing is provided at sexual health clinics and through community organisations like us. Testing for HIV is a lot easier and quicker than it once was and there are different options to suit your preferred method. . Testing does not have to be done by a nurse taking a syringe of blood as it can be done by a finger prick test, which can be a good alternative if you aren't a fan of needles. Whichever your preferred method, the most important thing to know is what 'window period' the test covers you for. The 'Window period' refers to the amount of time it takes from the point of exposure for HIV to show up in your bloodstream. By taking a test after the correct window period to pass you can be confident that the result you receive is the most conclusive.
HIV Testing - The Eddystone Trust
Our tests have a window period of 90 days, which is similar to other rapid and self - tests, so you should wait 90 days before testing. The tests we use require you to place a drop of blood from your finger on the test, you then need to add a solution and wait for the result to be displayed. This process normally takes around 15 minutes. We take individuals through a pre-test discussion to understand your concern and provide the most appropriate advice.
Blood is not routinely screened in this country for HIV (apart from at Anti-natal clinics) and GP's don't tend to offer HIV testing.
Last night I had condomless sex and I am worried I have exposed myself to HIV. What can I do?
If you have feel you have exposed yourself to HIV in some way there is a course of medication you can take called PEP (sometimes referred to as PEPSE), which stands for Post Exposure Prophylaxis. Taking this medication can prevent HIV taking hold in the body. PEP needs to be taken within 72 hours and is most effective when it is started within 24 hours. The course of medication is normally 28 days and you need to take the full course in the way it is prescribed for it to be effective.
PEP is a form of emergency medication which you can get via your local sexual health clinic or at A & E. To provide you with the most appropriate care and course of treatment staff need to ask questions about why you think you need PEP. This is standard procedure, and you shouldn't worry about feeling judged.
If you have any worries relating to HIV you can speak to a member of staff from The Eddystone Trust by contacting us below:
PEP can only prevent against HIV and so you should be offered a full STI screen at the sexual health clinic when accessing PEP.
What does the term Undetectable and U=U mean?
In the past Doctors would wait for HIV to have impacted on a person's immune system before they would have prescribed treatment. These days treatment is prescribed in the following months after a diagnosis so that the virus is controlled to a level called Undetectable. This means that if you were to look at a blood sample under a microscope it would not be possible to see the virus. After someone has been taking their HIV medication in the way it is prescribed for six months and they maintain that undetectable level of HIV they are considered to be taking effective treatment for HIV. If someone is taking effective treatment and has condomless vaginal or anal sex it is not possible for them to transmit HIV to another person.
The acronym U=U stands for Undetectable = Untransmittable and applies equally to men and women, whether cisgender or transgender and to heterosexuals and gay people.
There have been two very large studies into U=U in both straight and same sex couples. In both studies they were looking at transmissions of HIV in couples where one partner had an undetectable level of HIV and the other person was HIV negative. Despite there being over 130000 instances of condomless sex reported there wasn't a single transmission of HIV.
What is PrEP and what does it do?
PrEP stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis and is a drug that can be taken to build up resistance to HIV in the body. Where PrEP is taken daily in the way it is prescribed it has a 99% success rate of preventing HIV acquisition through condomless sex. As PrEP only protects against HIV it is recommend you use condoms to prevent other STI's.
PrEP can be purchased online at Iwantprepnow.co.uk where you can also get advice on different dosing options. Individuals from groups who are considered to be at higher risk of HIV can access PrEP on the NHS via their local sexual health clinic.
For more information on PrEP visit here:
Do I have to tell anyone that I have HIV?
Who you tell is entirely your choice, some people are very open about their HIV status and some people only tell a small number of people, in many situations it is simply not relevant or a requirement to disclose. More information around the law can be found here:
There are pros and cons of telling someone that you have HIV. Restricting your status to only a small number of people enables your information to remain private. Some people fear stigma, discrimination and rejection.
By not telling anyone could cause you to feel isolated, limit your access to sources of support and withdrawing from those around you that you would normally turn too. Telling current, previous or new sexual partners can be a difficult decision too.
Can I have children if I am HIV+?
Every year in the UK, there are over a thousand women living with HIV that become pregnant. The term Vertical transmission is used and refers to mother to baby transmission. Almost all these women go on to give birth to healthy babies who are not HIV+. Statics reveal 99.7% of babies born to women living with HIV in the UK do not have HIV.
Transmission of HIV from mother to baby is prevented by taking ART as prescribed by your HIV consultant. Your baby will be monitored and tested for HIV; the baby will be prescribed anti-HIV medication as a safety measure. It is not recommended that you breast feed your baby as HIV remains detectable in breast milk, although you have an undetectable viral load.
Guidelines from the British HIV Association (BHIVA) state that in the UK and other high-income settings, the safest way to feed your baby is with formula milk, as this means there is zero risk of ongoing HIV exposure after birth.