What is HIV?
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus which can gradually damage the immune system. Without treatment and over a number of years, the virus can reduce the body’s ability to combat infections and illnesses. However, people who are HIV-positive but receive treatment on time are likely to remain healthy with normal life expectancy.
What is AIDS?
AIDS stands for 'Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome'. It is a term used when a person’s immune system begins to weaken due to the damage caused by HIV. This can lead to the development of a number of infections and illnesses. However, this progression to developing AIDS can be successfully stopped if HIV treatment is begun (WHO, 2015).
HIV in Ireland
Around 350 people in Ireland contract HIV each year (Health Protection Surveillance Centre). Around half of them are MSM (men who have sex with men). Just under half of new infections are people aged 25 to 34.
The good news is that most people living with HIV who know that they are infected are taking effective medication. Taking this treatment means that the levels of HIV in the body are kept at very low or ‘undetectable’ levels. This also means that the person will live longer, stay healthier and be much less likely to pass on the virus.
There are a large number of people in Ireland who have HIV, but are not aware of their status. We need to do everything we can to increase the number of people who know that they have HIV to ensure that treatment starts at the right time and these individuals can continue to lead a normal, healthy life. Successful treatment also prevents the virus being passed on to others.
Did you know? …
The faster you start the right treatment, the higher the quality and the longer the length of life you will have.
What are the main sources of HIV infection?
The bodily fluids that can contain enough HIV to infect someone are:
- Seminal fluid
- Vaginal fluids, including menstrual fluids (period blood)
- Breast milk
- Mucus found in the rectum
- Pre-cum (the fluid that the penis produces for lubrication before ejaculation).
What are the signs and symptoms?
Most people do not have signs or symptoms to tell them that they are infected with HIV. However, if they do, the first symptoms can appear within two to four weeks of infection (e.g. Flu-like illnesses, sore throat, swollen glands, rash). This is called a ‘seroconversion illness’. This soon settles down and then most people will have no symptoms until years later.
As HIV becomes more advanced, the symptoms of a weakened immune system start to appear. Common symptoms include:
- Unintentional weight loss
- Chronic diarrhoea
- Recurrent infections e.g. chest infections
- Skin rashes, especially on your face, genitals or anus
- An increase in Herpes ulcers or thrush infections in your mouth/genitals
- Sweats, especially at night
- Unusual tiredness
- Nausea or loss of appetite
- Swollen lymph glands in the neck, groin or armpits.
These symptoms can all be caused by many other common conditions so do not necessarily mean that you have HIV. However, if you experience all or some of these symptoms and you think that you may have been at risk of HIV at any time, it is a good idea to get a test.
You may have been at risk of HIV if you have had any unprotected sex or have taken part in high-risk behaviours. This includes having unprotected sex with different partners, having unprotected sex with someone who is HIV positive, sharing injecting equipment when using recreational drugs or steroids or if you have been given a blood transfusion outside of the UK.
It is also possible for a HIV positive female to pass the infection to her baby. This can occur during pregnancy, at birth or through breastfeeding. This is a rare occurence in the UK as HIV testing for pregnant women, and appropriate treatment for those who are HIV positive, prevents mother to child transmission of the virus.
How is HIV tested for?
HIV testing can be tested for either by taking a sample of blood from your arm or by using a finger prick blood test on the end of your finger. Better2Know offers testing from as early as ten days after potential exposure to the virus. Learn more about our testing options here.
What if I test positive for HIV?
With early intervention and access to effective medication, HIV is no longer a life-threatening condition. Treatment helps to prevent the virus from causing further harm to the immune system. There are also lifestyle changes you can make to help you to manage the infection.
Should you test positive for HIV, we can arrange an appointment with an HIV doctor for you who will do further tests to confirm your status, look at your CD4 levels and monitor your viral load. Your doctor will use the results from these tests to prescribe the most appropriate medication for you. You will have regular consultations and blood tests to monitor the effectiveness of the medication.
There are many organisations, groups, apps and webpages that can help you to manage your HIV whilst maintaining your wellbeing and lifestyle. If you do test positive for HIV, we can help you to find a support group near you.
It is important to notify your recent sexual partner(s) if you test positive for HIV, to prevent further transmission and enable earlier treatment. You can do so through the Better2Know anonymous partner notification system.
All HIV testing and referral with Better2Know is completely confidential. We will not share your results with anyone without your permission.
Why test for HIV?
Knowing that you are HIV positive is so much better for your long term health as you can start treatment early. This means that you will stay healthy and well for longer, living as long as most people who do not have HIV.
- Treatment is extremely effective and easy to take. There are so many different options now, so it is worth knowing if you have HIV.
- With effective treatment, you are much less likely to pass on HIV. This means that as well as protecting your own health, testing can also improve the wellbeing of others, too.
- The longer someone goes untested and untreated, the higher the likelihood that treatment will not work as well as it would have if it had been started sooner.
- Not having a test does not make the virus go away.
For more help and support, please contact Better2Know or your Doctor.