What is HIV?

By  Youth Projects     |    Updated: 25th April, 2017    |    7 min read

Hu-man Imm-you-no-dah-fish-en-cee (virus)

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

It is called this because, over time, the virus causes damage to the body’s immune system. It’s important to remember that the presence of HIV in the body is not the same as having AIDS.

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and is diagnosed by the presence of a number of symptoms and infections that develop as a result of the damage HIV does to the immune system. A person can be HIV positive for many years but not actually have AIDS. It is only after a long period of time that HIV leads onto AIDS. In countries like Australia, where HIV medicine is available, this can take 10-20 years, and in some cases, even longer. AIDS eventually develops because the immune system becomes weakened by the virus over time and, once weakened, it struggles to protect itself from certain infections and cancers that people who are HIV negative are much more resistant to.

How do you get HIV?

HIV can be sexually transmitted when the blood, cum, pre cum or vaginal fluid of an HIV positive person enters the blood stream of an HIV negative person. If there is blood present during sex or a direct route into the bloodstream such as an open cut or sore (on the penis, vagina, anus or mouth), the risk of transmitting HIV becomes even greater. This is why anal sex and rough sex (such as ‘fisting’ and other S&M activities) are riskier.

So if an HIV positive person has anal sex (giving or receiving) or vaginal sex with an HIV negative person without using a condom, HIV can be passed on. It’s also important to clean sex toys (such as vibrators and dildos) after use with soapy water or alcohol wipes and always put a new condom over them if you are switching from one person to another. It’s also a good idea to use a water based lube with condoms; this reduces the risk of them breaking.

For girls having sex with girls, the risk of sexually transmitting HIV is low although not impossible. Again, the risk is increased if there are cuts or sores on the mouth or if the woman receiving oral sex has sores on HIV is most commonly spread by sex without a condom or sharing injecting equipment.her genitals or has her period. Oral sex is safer if you use a dental dam, a square of thin, stretchy latex, to stop any vaginal fluid or menstrual blood getting into your mouth. Dental dams may be hard to find so a condom cut open and spread flat can also be used instead. Having unprotected oral sex is considered low risk but using a dam or condom is recommended especially if either partner has ulcers or bleeding gums or has just brushed or flossed their teeth.

A woman who is HIV positive can also pass HIV onto her baby during pregnancy, birth or via breast milk, but doctors can help to greatly reduce the risk of this type of transmission.

Donor insemination, inserting semen from a syringe into the vagina as a way to get pregnant, is another potential HIV risk. If considering donor insemination, be sure the donor person takes an HIV, (and other STIs) test before you go ahead.

Another way HIV infected blood can enter the blood stream is through the sharing of drug injecting equipment. Similarly, needles used for piercing or tattooing can become contaminated with blood and should never be reused without correct sterilization. The risk is reasonably low for HIV transmission, but quite high for Hepatitis B and Hep C so remember never share injecting, piercing or tattooing equipment!

In Australia, HIV is most commonly spread by sex without a condom or sharing injecting equipment, so if you are careful, you’ll greatly reduce the risk. And remember, you can’t get HIV from kissing, hugging, shaking hands, sharing cups, toilet seats or swimming pools and you can’t get it from mosquito bites or donating blood.

Signs and symptoms

Not everyone has obvious symptoms when they first contract HIV.

Some people get a rash over their body and/or flu like symptoms such as fever, swollen glands or a sore throat. This is called “seroconversion illness”, an illness that presents when somebody is newly infected with HIV. It’s caused by the virus replicating itself, making the immune system fight back against this unknown invader.

What are the long term health effects of HIV?

Over a long period of time, the HIV virus continues to weaken the immune system making it harder for the body to fight off infections and cancers; when the immune system reaches this advanced stage of weakness the person is said to have AIDS. Generally, in Australia, people with HIV, don’t develop AIDS for many years. Without any treatment, most people who have HIV eventually become ill and can develop AIDS within five to ten years.

However some people don’t show any signs or symptom of AIDS, even after ten years of being HIV positive.

How do you prevent getting HIV?

You can greatly reduce your chances of getting HIV by using condoms or dams during sex, as well as using condoms or dams over sex toys and cleaning sex toys between partners.

It’s also important not to share any injecting equipment and to make sure that any piercing or tattooing is done with new disposable needles and that all equipment is correctly sterilized.

How do you find out if you have HIV?

A blood test, called an HIV antibody test, is used to detect HIV. Antibodies are produced by the body to fight off infections however it can take up to 3 months after the first exposure to HIV for the antibodies to If you have had risky sex, or risky injecting drug use, it’s best to be tested as soon as possible.show up in the blood. This 3 month period is called the “window period”. So if you have had risky sex, or risky injecting drug use, it’s best to be tested as soon as possible and then have a follow up test three months later.

Any service that provides HIV testing should also provide pre and post test counseling because getting tested can be a stressful time; you really need to have good support and clear information regardless of what your results are.

How do you get treated for HIV?

Currently, there is no vaccine or cure for HIV/AIDS. However, there is a preventative HIV treatment that can be taken immediately after a high risk situation such as unprotected sex with an HIV positive person or a needle stick injury. This treatment is called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

It is a month-long course of drugs that may prevent a person from getting HIV if they start the course within 72 hours (three days) of being exposed to the HIV virus.

In the longer term, there are drug treatments available that keep people with HIV healthier for longer. For most people, this treatment can delay, and possibly even prevent HIV related illnesses and, therefore delay the development of AIDS. Many people find this treatment to be complex with strong side effects. It should also be noted that once someone starts drug treatment for HIV, they should continue this treatment for the rest of their life. Thankfully, scientists are always researching and trialling new drugs and treatment for HIV/AIDS.

Also check the related topics:  

Types of STI’s Sex & Sexual Health

Factsheet provided by Youth Projects


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