HIV

Based on what you have told us, you have a very high risk of contracting HIV. We suggest that you get an HIV test done. The earlier the infection is diagnosed and the treatment is started, the easier it is to prevent the virus from causing harm, and the less chance you have to pass it on to someone else.

If you are worried, we advise that you see your doctor to get a HIV test done.

Introduction

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages the cells in your immune system and weakens your ability to fight everyday infections and disease. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the name used to describe a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that happen when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus. While AIDS can't be transmitted from one person to another, the HIV virus can. There's currently no cure for HIV, but there are very effective drug treatments that enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life. With an early diagnosis and effective treatments, most people with HIV won't develop any AIDS-related illnesses and will live a near-normal lifespan.

If you're worried you could have HIV, get tested now. The sooner you're diagnosed, the quicker you can access treatment, so you can lead a full and healthy life. Getting tested for HIV means that, if you do have HIV, you can start your treatment before the infection damages your body and health. This is known as an early diagnosis.

Where to get an HIV test

There are various places you can go to for an HIV test, including:

  • sexual health or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics
  • clinics run by charities
  • some contraception and young people's clinics
  • local drug dependency services
  • antenatal clinics, if you're pregnant
  • private clinics

What does a HIV test involve

There are 4 main types of HIV test:

  • blood test – where a sample of blood is taken in a clinic and sent for testing in a laboratory. Results are usually available on the same day or within a few days
  • point of care test – where a sample of saliva from your mouth or a small spot of blood from your finger is taken in a clinic. This sample doesn't need to be sent to a laboratory and the result is available within a few minutes
  • home sampling kit – where you collect a saliva sample or small spot of blood at home and send it off in the post for testing. You'll be contacted by phone or text with your result in a few days.
  • home testing kit – where you collect a saliva sample or small spot of blood yourself and test it at home. The result is available within minutes. It's important to check that any test you buy has a quality assurance mark and is licensed for sale If the test finds no sign of infection, your result is "negative". If signs of infection are found, the result is "positive". The blood test is the most accurate test and can normally give reliable results from 1 month after infection. The other tests tend to be less accurate and may not give a reliable result for a longer period after exposure to the infection. This is known as the window period. For all these tests, a blood test should be carried out to confirm the result if the first test is positive. If this test is also positive, you'll be referred to a specialist HIV clinic for some more tests and a discussion about your treatment options.

Why you should get tested for HIV early

It's important to get tested for HIV early because, although you might look and feel healthy, the infection will be damaging your health. Left undiagnosed, you will also be at risk of passing HIV on to others.

HIV is passed on through bodily fluids (such as blood, semen or vaginal fluid) through, for example, sex without a condom or through sharing needles to inject drugs.

Why early diagnosis and treatment of HIV matters

Once HIV is in a person's body, the virus infects and destroys cells called CD4 cells in the blood. CD4 cells are responsible for fighting infection and are vital to your immune system. If you have HIV, doctors will regularly test your blood to see how your immune system is doing. The tests measure the number of CD4 cells in your blood (your CD4 count) and the amount of HIV in your blood (the viral load). Your doctor will know when it's best for you to start HIV treatment, which is usually given as a combination of tablets. Starting treatment can raise your CD4 count and lower your viral load.

Why late HIV diagnosis is serious

If HIV isn't treated, it will eventually damage your immune system so much that you're likely to develop a serious, life-threatening condition, such as pneumonia. It typically takes about 5 to 10 years for the virus to damage the immune system in this way.

Preventing HIV

You can protect yourself against HIV by using a condom every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex. This will also help to prevent you passing on the infection, if you have it. If you're living with HIV, being on successful treatment and having an undetectable viral load will also make it unlikely that you will pass on the virus to any sexual partners. However, it is still important to practise safe sex. If you're worried you have been exposed to HIV, there is a course of treatment called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). This can help to prevent an HIV infection developing after the virus has entered the body, if you take it soon enough. You need to take PEP as soon as possible after the exposure risk – ideally within 24 hours, but no later than 72 hours.

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