HIV and AIDS
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus which damages a person's immune system and reduces their ability to fight off infections. There is no cure for HIV, however there are treatments.
If left untreated, HIV can cause AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). AIDS is a syndrome which occurs when the body's immune system is damaged and cannot fight off infections and cancer.
It is important to remember that HIV is not the same as AIDS. Most people living with HIV in Australia do not have AIDS. People living with HIV and who know they have HIV (which is referred to as being ‘HIV positive’) can take medications each day which work to keep HIV under control. Without this treatment, HIV can progress over a number of years to AIDS.
Today, HIV is considered to be a chronic but manageable condition, and people living with HIV can lead long and healthy lives, with a similar life expectancy to a person who does not have HIV (someone who is 'HIV negative').
How is HIV spread?
HIV may be present in the following body fluids:
- vaginal fluid
- anal fluid
- breast milk.
HIV is spread when body fluids, which contain the virus, enter the bloodstream of a person who does not have HIV. This can happen by:
- having unprotected anal or vaginal sex
- sharing injecting equipment, particularly needles and syringes
- the natural exchange of fluids from a woman who is HIV-positive to her baby during pregnancy, birth or during breastfeeding
- unsafe medical or dental procedures (this can be a consideration when travelling to foreign countries).
In Australia, HIV is most commonly spread by having unprotected sex and through sharing injecting equipment. The highest risk for both males and females is unprotected anal sex. Unprotected vaginal sex is also a risk, and sharing injecting equipment, particularly needles and syringes, can put HIV directly into your bloodstream. You are also at risk if your sexual partner shares injecting equipment, even if you don’t. Unprotected oral sex may be a risk if there are any cuts or sores in and around the mouth or genital area.
The risk of spreading HIV is significantly reduced if a person knows they are HIV-positive, is taking HIV medications, and has been clinically diagnosed as having an ‘undetectable viral load’. Having an undetectable viral load means that the amount of HIV within a person’s blood cannot be detected by standard laboratory tests. This does not mean that HIV is no longer inside the body, rather it means that the amount of HIV a person has is at a very low level.
If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, or are at risk, you need to get tested. See your doctor, visit a sexual health clinic or call the Sexual Health Helpline for more information (9227 6178 for metropolitan callers or 1800 198 205 for country callers).
How you can't get HIV?
HIV cannot be spread through everyday social contact, such as shaking hands, sharing a glass, or hugging and kissing. Saliva, tears and sweat do not carry HIV. You cannot get HIV from mosquito bites.
You are not at risk of HIV in most workplaces and schools. However, where work, study or sport includes contact with blood and body fluids there may be some risk. Always follow basic hygiene, including proper hand washing, and safe handling of body fluids such as blood spills.
What are the signs and symptoms of HIV?
Soon after HIV infection, some people feel as if they have the flu, with symptoms such as:
- a rash.
Some people may not have any symptoms. You can have HIV and feel and look healthy. Many people do not realise they have HIV because they do not see or feel anything wrong. Without knowing it, you can pass HIV on to your sexual partner.
As the virus continues to attack the immune system, a person will start to develop symptoms. These can include:
- constant tiredness
- swollen glands
- rapid weight loss
- night sweats
- memory loss
These symptoms can last for a long time. If the immune system is badly damaged the body may be unable to fight off illnesses and infections, which can lead to AIDS.
How do I know if I have HIV?
The only way to find out if you have HIV is to have a blood test. However, for a short period just after HIV enters the body, it cannot be picked up with a test. So if your result is negative, you will need to have another test after three months.
If you have a test, you will be given information and be able to ask questions before and after to make sure that you fully understand what both a positive and a negative result mean.
The doctor will give you the test results face-to-face. All information about the test will be kept confidential (private).
Your doctor should also talk to you about contact tracing. Contact tracing involves finding and informing anyone with whom you may have had unsafe sex or blood-blood contact so they can get counselling and testing, and treatment if necessary. You can do the contact tracing yourself and/or with the help of a health professional. You should discuss this with your doctor.
How can I have a healthy and fulfilling life with HIV?
If you have HIV you can lead a full and healthy life. Although there is currently no cure for HIV, the condition can be managed with daily treatment. This treatment is generally in the form of a tablet which needs to be taken every day to keep your HIV under control.
People living with HIV can still have relationships, including having sex, and can also have children if they choose. Across Australia, there are many HIV-positive men and women who have had HIV-negative children. If you or your partner has HIV, it is best to talk with your HIV doctor about options for practising safer sex, or for having children.
HIV treatment, taken correctly, can lead to an individual who has HIV having an undetectable viral load. This does not mean that the HIV is cured, but that the amount in the blood is too small for tests to detect. In these circumstances it is very unlikely that HIV will be spread to others.
Pregnant women can get treatment to significantly reduce the chances of their baby getting HIV – you must tell your doctor if you are pregnant and have HIV.
Learn more about the responsibilities people living with HIV should consider, as well as locate medical and social services available in WA.
How can HIV be prevented?
You can protect yourself and your partner against HIV and other STIs by following this advice:
- Always use condoms with water-based lubricant when you have sex. Condoms are the best way to protect both of you from HIV and other STIs. Always use condoms during vaginal and anal sex, until you are totally sure that both you and your partner do not have HIV or an STI.
- If you inject drugs, never share needles, syringes, filters, water or spoons. Wash your hands or swab your fingers before touching another person’s injection site. Always use new, sterile needles and syringes. You can get these from most chemists, needle and syringe exchange outlets, and at country hospitals after hours.
- If you are in a relationship, ensure that both you and your partner have been tested and are aware of each other’s HIV status. Many people who are HIV-positive have a sexual relationship with a partner who is HIV-negative and do not spread the infection to their partner.
- If you are having casual sex (sex with different people on a regular basis), then schedule regular STI checks.
- Before considering any body art (such as tattooing or piercing) make sure the body artist uses only sterilised equipment, and new razors, inks and needles each time.
- Avoid sharing personal items which may have traces of blood on them, such as razors and toothbrushes.
- Alcohol and other drugs can affect your decision making abilities and also your sexual behaviour. If you are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, it may be better to avoid sex.
- If you think you have been exposed to HIV recently, you might be eligible for post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). PEP is a prescribed course of medication, which must be taken as soon as possible and within 72 hours (three days) of exposure to HIV. It helps to reduce the risk of HIV becoming established in the body. For more information call the 24 hour PEP Line on 1300 767 161.
Talking about HIV can be difficult, but if you are HIV-positive, you should think about talking to your sex partner before you have sex. Discuss it when you are feeling relaxed and confident, not just before you have sex. Whether or not you decide to tell your sex partner that you have HIV, you must always practice safer sex. Using condoms with water-based lubricant is the best way to prevent the spread of HIV.
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Where to get help
- HIV is mainly spread by having unprotected sex with a person who has HIV, especially if they are not on treatment.
- HIV can also be spread by sharing injecting equipment, particularly needles and syringes, with a person who has HIV.
- You can have HIV and not have any symptoms. Even if you have no symptoms it is possible to spread HIV.
- The only way to find out if you have HIV is to have a blood test.
- Treatments are available that allow people living with HIV to lead long, healthy, fulfilling lives, which includes having children if they choose.
This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.