Health conditions

HIV and AIDS

What are HIV and AIDS?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is an infection that attacks the immune system and weakens the body’s ability to fight infections.

Without treatment, after some years, a person who has HIV can’t fight off some infections and cancers. This stage of HIV is called AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).

‘Acquired’ means not inherited. ‘Immune deficiency’ means a breakdown in the body’s immune system. ‘Syndrome’ means a range of diseases that may be associated with another disease.

There is no cure for HIV. An infected person can pass HIV on to others for the rest of their life.

How do you get HIV?

There are 3 main ways to become infected with HIV:

  • by having unprotected anal, vaginal or oral sex with an infected person
  • when infected blood gets into another person’s bloodstream
  • from an infected woman to her baby, during pregnancy or birth, or from breastfeeding.

Developing AIDS

Without treatment, most people with HIV become ill and develop AIDS within 5 to 10 years.

Risky behaviours

The highest risk for both males and females is unprotected anal sex. Unprotected vaginal sex is also a risk. Unprotected sex is sex without using a condom or dam (a thin latex square held over the vaginal or anal area during oral sex.)

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 is a risk, particularly if the mouth or genital area has any cuts or sores.

How you can’t get HIV/AIDS

You can’t get infected with HIV from everyday social contact, such as shaking hands, sharing a glass, or hugging and kissing. Saliva, tears or sweat are not infectious.

You are not at risk in most workplaces and schools. However, where work, study or sport could include 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.

Signs and symptoms

Soon after being infected with HIV, some people feel as if they have the flu, with symptoms such as:

  • fever
  • headache
  • tiredness
  • 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 it because they don’t see or feel anything wrong. Without knowing it, you can pass HIV on to your sexual partner.

As the virus keeps attacking the immune system, a person will develop symptoms of the disease. These include:

  • constant tiredness
  • swollen glands
  • rapid weight loss
  • night sweats
  • memory loss
  • diarrhoea.

These symptoms can last for a long time. When the immune system is badly damaged, cancers, other infections, and brain damage can occur. This is called AIDS.

How do I know I have HIV?

The only way to find out if you have been infected with HIV is to have a blood test. However, for a short period just after HIV enters the body, it can’t be picked up with a test. So if your result is negative, you will need to have the test again after 3 months.

If you are having 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, not by phone or letter. 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 the contacts of a person with an infection so they can get counselling and testing, and treatment if necessary. You can do the contact tracing yourself and/or with help of a health professional. Discuss this with your doctor.

Treatment of HIV

There is currently no cure for HIV. However, the illness can be managed. Many people with HIV live for years, with daily treatment. This is why, if you are at risk, you need to get tested early.

Pregnant women can get treatment to reduce the chances of the baby getting HIV – you must tell your doctor if you’re pregnant and have HIV.

There are services for people with HIV that provide medical, social, emotional and other forms of support.

How can HIV be prevented?

You can protect yourself and your partner against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by following this advice:

  • Always use condoms or dams and water-based lubricant. Condoms are the best way to protect you both from HIV and other STIs. Always use condoms during vaginal and anal sex, and dams during oral sex, until you’re totally sure that both you and your partner don’t have an STI.
  • Don’t inject drugs. If you do, 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.
  • Have a long-term relationship where neither of you is already infected, and neither of you has other partners.
  • Limit your sex partners. The fewer people you have sex with, the less chance you have of getting HIV or another STI.
  • 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.
  • Don’t share personal items, such as razors, toothbrushes and dental floss.
  • Have regular STI checks.
  • Alcohol and other drugs can affect your sexual behaviour. If you are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, it may be better to avoid sex.

Talking about HIV can be difficult, but if you are HIV-positive, you must tell your sex partner before you have sex. Discuss it when you are feeling relaxed and confident, not just before you have sex. Your partner will appreciate your honesty and that you don’t want to infect him/her. You have the right to know if they are infected, too.

Where to get help                                 

  • See your doctor.
  • Ring healthdirect Australia on 1800 022 222.
  • Call the Sexual Health Helpline (9227 6178 for metropolitan callers or 1800 198 205 for country callers).
  • FPWA Sexual Health Services (phone 9227 6177).

Remember

  • HIV is mainly spread by having unprotected sex with an infected person.
  • HIV can also be transmitted by sharing drug injection needles with an infected person.
  • You can be infected with HIV and even if you have no symptoms, you can infect your sexual partner.
  • The only way to find out if you have been infected with HIV is to have a blood test.


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.

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