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Adeel Arshad

Authored on 24 January 2024 by Adeel Arshad,

Reviewed 24 January 2024 by Dr Ruch Karunadasa.

What is HIV?

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus which weakens the immune system and affects a patient's ability to fight off common infections and diseases. When a patient's immune system has been severely weakened, they can suffer from a number of life-threatening infections and conditions collectively known as AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)

The HIV virus can be transmitted from person to person, but AIDS cannot. At present no cure exists for HIV, however there are numerous drugs available which can suppress the virus and allow patients to live a long and healthy life.

If diagnosed early and effective treatment started, most patients infected with HIV will not develop AIDS and go on to live a normal lifespan.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

Following infection with HIV, most patients experience mild flu like symptoms 2-6 weeks after infection, which can last for 1-2 weeks. Following this initial symptom, HIV may not display any other symptoms for a number of years but will during this time continue to damage the immune system.

This means that many people with HIV do not know they are infected and if there is any suspicion of a possible infection, patients should be encouraged to get tested as soon as possible.

Some patients are at higher risk of contracting the infection and they may be advised to get tested on a more regular basis.

Is HIV serious?

If left untreated HIV can cause AIDS, resulting in life threatening infections.

If detected quickly and appropriate treatments started soon, most patients can go on to live a healthy life with a near normal lifespan.

What does the test for HIV involve?

The only way to find out if you have HIV is to get tested. The test involves testing a sample of blood or saliva for traces of the virus.

Emergency post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) can stop a patient becoming infected if started within 72 hours of possible exposure. Ideally this should be started within 24 hours.

Both positive and negative tests may require to be repeated after 1 to 3 months. If your first test returns a positive result, patients will be referred for a second blood test to confirm this. Following diagnosis, patients will be referred to a specialist HIV clinic to discuss treatment options.

What are the treatment options?

For patients that suspect they could have come into contact with HIV, post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is available. This treatment option needs to be started within 72 hours post exposure but ideally within 24 hours.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is also available (eligibility criteria may apply).

Following a positive test result and subsequent blood tests, HIV is treated with antiretroviral medicines. These drugs prevent the virus from replicating, spreading and causing damage to the immune system. Often treatment will involve the use of more than one drug to prevent the virus from adapting and becoming resistant to the treatment. Most patients will take between 1 to 4 tablets daily and the combination of drugs will differ from patient to patient.

Blood tests will monitor the amount of virus in the patient's blood (viral load). A patient is classed as undetectable when the virus can no longer be detected in these blood tests. This for most patients will usually be within 6 months of starting treatment.

HIV in pregnancy

Treatment is available to prevent the virus being passed on to the unborn child. Without treatment there is a 1 in 4 chance the virus will be passed to the baby. With treatment this risk reduces from 25% to less than 1%.

Advances in treatment also mean the risk of passing the virus to the baby during a normal birth are extremely low. In some cases, a c-section may still be recommended but usually this is for reasons unrelated to HIV.

If you become pregnant but are HIV positive, you should let your specialist team know as some medicines taken for HIV can be harmful to the unborn baby. Additionally, to prevent the virus being passed to the baby, additional medication may need to be started.

Mothers should not breastfeed their baby as the virus can be passed on to the baby through breast milk.

Useful Information

NHS web information on HIV

Those at additional risk of contracting HIV

Local HIV support services

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