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Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is most commonly spread by a non-infected individual engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected individual. It can also be passed on by the sharing of infected needles and other equipment used for injecting.

A HIV positive mother can pass on the virus to her child during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. The HIV virus attacks the immune system and weakens the infected individuals’ ability to fight infection and disease.

AIDS is the final stage of the HIV infection and the body can no longer fight infection. However, with early diagnosis and effective treatment most HIV patients will not develop AIDS. There is no cure for HIV but the treatment does help the patient live a long and healthy life.

According to statistics from the Health Protection Agency 95% of those diagnosed with HIV in the UK in 2011 acquired HIV as a result of sexual contact.

Causes of HIV

HIV is present in the body fluids (semen, vaginal fluids, anal fluids, blood and breast milk) of the infected individual. It can be passed on by unprotected sexual intercourse. HIV can also spread by using contaminated needles, syringes or other injecting equipment. The virus can also spread from mother to baby during pregnancy, birth or breast feeding.

Signs and symptoms

Most people infected with the virus can experience short flu like illness that can occur up to two to six weeks after the infection. This is known as seroconversion and it is estimated that up to 80% of people who are infected with HIV experience this. After this there may be no symptoms for several years.

Symptoms include:

  • fever
  • sore throat
  • body rash
  • tiredness
  • joint pain
  • muscle pain.

These symptoms can be caused by other conditions and not necessarily HIV and it does not mean you have the virus.

After the initial symptoms disappear HIV may not cause further symptoms for several years. During this time (the asymptomatic HIV infection) the virus continues to spread and damage the immune system. This can take up 10 years and during this period the individual may feel absolutely fine.

Late stage HIV infection

If left untreated HIV can weaken the ability to fight infection and an individual can become vulnerable to illness.

Symptoms of late stage HIV infection

  • Night sweats
  • Persistent tiredness
  • Weight loss
  • Persistent diarrhoea
  • Blurred vision
  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever above 37C that lasts a number of weeks
  • Swollen glands that last for more than three months

At this stage the individual is at an increased risk of life threatening illness such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and certain cancers. Once HIV treatment has been commenced many of these illnesses can be treated and an individual’s health can improve.


If an individual feels they have been exposed to the virus, within 72 hours of exposure anti-HIV medication can be taken to stop the individual becoming infected. This is known as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

This must be initiated within 72 hours of coming into contact with the virus. The quicker this treatment is started the better. With time the chances of this medication being effective reduce. PEP is a month long treatment with many side effects which can be serious and there is no guarantee that this treatment option will be effective.

This treatment option is the same as those who have tested positive for HIV. Treatment with anti-HIV drugs is sometimes called combination therapy a patients can take at least three different drugs together.

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