What is it? HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. When a person is HIV positive, infectious viruses can be found in their blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk.

How does it work? HIV attacks a type of white blood cell called CD4+ cells. These are also known as T-helper cells, and are important for the immune system to activate other cells and help produce a strong response to incoming infection.

Symptoms and development:

  • At first people with HIV usually have no symptoms for a prolonged period of time, while the virus acts slowly to weaken the body’s immune system.
  • Over time the body tries to eliminate the virus by destroying the infected cells. Unfortunately, the infected cells are needed for our immune system!
  • Eventually a pivotal point is reached when the body can no longer keep producing new T-helper cells, and the immune system becomes weak. At this severe stage of infection, the person is diagnosed as having AIDS. AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Because of their weak immune system, they are prone to other infections, including some which may not affect healthy people.

What does it mean to have AIDS? To say that a person has AIDS means they have one or more of a list of otherwise usually rare illnesses as a result of the breakdown of the body’s immune system.

How is HIV transmitted? HIV is not passed on through everyday social contact with an infected person. Touching, shaking hands, hugging, coughing or sneezing cannot pass on the virus. HIV is passed on through the transfer of body fluids such as blood, semen, fluid from the woman’s cervix and breast milk. It is also present in vaginal and rectal secretions.

When am I at risk of catching HIV? Injecting drug users who share needles are at risk, but in the UK the main route of transmission is sexual. You can catch HIV through unprotected sex of any kind, because the virus is present in vaginal and rectal secretions. It is generally accepted that anal sex carries with it the highest risk, followed by vaginal sex. Transmission through oral sex has also been documented and although this is deemed much safer than penetrative sex there is still a risk.

How serious is HIV? Once infected with HIV, the person carries the virus in their body for the rest of their lives and remains infectious to others. However, recent treatment advances mean that in treated patients the virus level can be reduced. However, these drugs do not provide room for complacency. Treatment regimes are complex and have very unpleasant side effects. Living with HIV is not easy, and it certainly isn’t as simple as popping a pill every morning. This is why it is essential to always use a condom until both you and your partner have been tested.


How do you know if you have HIV? A person with HIV may have no symptoms and appear healthy for a long period of time.

How does screening work? A test can be done on a blood sample, which will detect the presence of antibodies to HIV, but it can take up to 3 months for the antibodies to show up in a test after the person was infected.

Where can I get screened? Confidential HIV tests can be obtained from any GUM clinic or GP. You can attend at any age (even if you are below the legal age of consent to sex which is 16). At a GUM clinic, the test (both the result and the fact that a test was taken at all) is completely confidential and secret.

HIV Infection in the UK

It is estimated that more than 70,000 (1 in 1,000) people are living with HIV in the UK, and around a third of these are undiagnosed.

Cumulatively, the largest group of infected people are men who have sex with men. The number of infections in this group has remained fairly constant for the last few years.

The number of heterosexually acquired HIV infections has been climbing since the eighties, and as of 1999 there are a larger number of these than infections acquired through sex between men. Clearly, it is wrong to think of HIV as a “gay disease”! It is becoming an increasing problem for the heterosexual population. At this stage, many infections are acquired abroad but if the current trend continues then HIV will soon become far more common as it is spread in this country.

If you have any questions, speak to your nurse or doctor, or see the sexual health useful conctacts list. To book a sexual health screen online visit