HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that weakens your immune system.  

HIV is a lifelong condition. But regular treatment and a healthy lifestyle can help you to live well and stay well.  

It's only when your immune system becomes weakened through lack of treatment and an unhealthy lifestyle that there's a risk of HIV becoming AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). 

Read on for the answers to your common HIV and AIDS questions, and learn more about the things you can do to stop HIV turning into AIDS.  

What is HIV? 

HIV is a lifelong virus that is slow to show symptoms once you have it (a lentivirus). The virus attacks the helper T cells that make up your immune system -  known as CD4 cells – reducing the number that you have left in your body to help fight off infections and other diseases.  

What are the symptoms of HIV? 

The symptoms of HIV change depending on which stage the virus is at. Men and women experience mostly the same HIV symptoms at each stage. 

Recently infected – Acute HIV stage 

Common symptoms include: a body rash, fever, sore throat, severe headaches and other flu-like symptoms.  

Less common symptoms include: swollen lymph nodes, nausea, fatigue, mouth ulcers, night sweats, vomiting, muscle aches and joint pains, and women may experience vaginal infections. 

Symptoms during the Acute HIV stage often last between one – two weeks. 

Stage two – Asymptomatic stage 

You won't tend to see symptoms of HIV at this stage as the virus slowly breaks down the number of CD4 cells in your body.  

This stage can last for up to 10 years, and sometimes longer. 

Advanced stage of HIV – AIDS symptoms 

Common symptoms of AIDS include: persistent diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, rapid weight loss, extreme tiredness, mouth ulcers and sores, a recurring fever, chills and night sweats, shortness of breath, coughing, long periods of/ frequently swollen lymph nodes, memory loss, confusion or nervous system diseases, and women may experience vaginal infections and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). 

How is HIV spread? 

HIV can be passed on through some of your bodily fluids (semen, vaginal and anal fluids, blood and breast milk).  

It’s most commonly spread through having anal or vaginal sex without a condom, and there is also a slight risk that HIV is spread via oral sex.  

HIV can also be spread by sharing needles, syringes or other injecting equipment, and from an HIV-positive mum to her baby during pregnancy, giving birth or breastfeeding.  

Can HIV be spread through kissing? 

HIV can't be spread through kissing or saliva. HIV isn't spread through urine or sweat either.  

How can you get tested for HIV? 

A quick blood test can test for HIV. An HIV blood test should be taken a month after suspected infection to get reliable results, and Virgin Care Private offer an instant HIV test that shows results within an hour.  

In some cases, an HIV blood test may need to be repeated 1 – 3 months after infection for more accurate results. This is because it can take up to three months for your body to produce enough HIV antibodies to be detected in a blood test.  

You should always book-in to see your GP as soon as possible to discuss whether or not you need to take emergency HIV medication if you think there is a risk. 

Why is HIV incurable? 

The virus stores itself in your DNA, and even when the virus reaches its inactive stage, the cells in your gut lining will remain infected. These can still re-infect your white blood cells and attack the immune system. 

How are HIV symptoms treated? 

HIV symptoms can be managed with antiretroviral treatment (ART). This is a combination of drugs prescribed to help control the virus in your body. 

They keep the level of the virus low (the viral load) to help your immune system recover and stay healthy.  

If the viral load is kept low with ART, this reduces the risk of HIV being passed on to others. But if you stop taking medication, there is a risk that HIV can be spread.  

How does HIV become AIDS? 

If HIV isn't properly managed with ART, your immune system can become severely damaged and turn into AIDS. 

AIDS is diagnosed when your CD4 count falls under 200, or you're at risk of developing a severe infection or a cancer that is life-threatening to a person with HIV.  

How long does it take for HIV to become AIDS? 

If HIV is left untreated, it normally takes 5 – 10 years before HIV becomes AIDS. 

How is AIDS managed? 

Protease inhibitors can be taken in drug form during the later stages of the HIV virus/AIDS to help keep levels of the virus as low as possible. 

It is always best to proactively protect yourself against HIV by using a condom with new partners, and avoid sharing needles, syringes and other injectable equipment with others. 

If you’ve had unprotected sex, or you’ve shared a needle, syringe or another injectable device with someone, a quick HIV test can help to bring you peace of mind.  

If you do test positive for HIV, treatment and lifestyle changes help to manage your symptoms, and prevent HIV from becoming AIDS. So you can go on to lead a healthy life.