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HIV

HIV transmission and testing

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system. HIV weakens the body’s ability to fight disease and infection. It attacks and destroys T cells, which are crucial for the body’s immunity.

At the end of 2011, there were an estimated 96,000 known cases of HIV in the UK. This includes an estimated 22,000 people who had not been diagnosed (which means that roughly one in four people who have the disease do not know that they have it). By Public Health England’s estimates, 95% of people diagnosed with HIV in the UK in 2011 acquired the infection through sexual contact.

AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection, when your body can no longer fight life-threatening infections. With early diagnosis and effective treatment, most people with HIV will not go on to develop AIDS.

People infected with HIV may not have any symptoms for 10 years or more. The most common initial symptom of HIV is a brief, flu-like illness that happens 2 – 6 weeks following infection (known as seroconversion illness). 80% of those infected are thought to experience this illness. The virus then may cause no further symptoms for a number of years.

Symptoms

Seroconversion illness typically lasts 1 – 2 weeks or more, and is a sign that your body is fighting the virus. The most common symptoms of seroconversion illness are:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Skin rash

These symptoms may also include:

  • Fatigue
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Swollen glands (lymph nodes in the jaw, behind the ears, and under the armpits)

Please note, of course, that these symptoms are quite natural with much more common conditions, and do not automatically mean you have contracted the virus.

Once the initial symptoms have passed, an infected person may not experience any further HIV symptoms for many years. This is referred to as asymptomatic HIV infection. The virus is active in the body and progressively damaging the immune system, but you will continue to feel well. This can go on for a decade.

After the virus has created a significant amount of damage to the immune system, other symptoms will arise, including:

  • Weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • Recurrent infections of cold and flu
  • Chronic diarrhoea
  • Skin conditions
  • Life-threatening illnesses

The earlier the HIV virus is diagnosed, the better your chances of avoiding the more serious symptoms. If you are concerned that you are at risk of HIV infection, we urge you to get tested.

Some important things to note regarding HIV testing:

  • There is an emergency anti-HIV medication called PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) which can prevent you from becoming infected, if you start taking it within three days of possible exposure, the sooner the better. Our clinic does not provide this but you can obtain this at some GUM clinics.
  • The sooner the virus is diagnosed, the sooner you can start treatment, which in turn improves your changes of avoiding serious symptoms and keeping the virus under control.
  • The HIV window period is typically six months, which means that you will need to wait, or potentially repeat initial tests after exposure, but nonetheless it is important to seek medical advice as soon as possible.
  • Our own clinic provides instant tests, with results available within 60 seconds as well as early detection Multiplex tests at 10 days post-exposure.

Causes

The HIV virus is not spread through the air or through basic physical contact, unlike colds or flu. It is much harder to transmit HIV from one person to another. You can catch HIV from an infected person if certain of their body fluids get into your bloodstream. HIV is not transmitted through saliva, sweat, or urine.

The most common way to catch HIV is through unprotected sex (having sex without a condom). It is also spread by sharing needles or other injecting equipment with someone who is infected. It is also possible for an HIV-positive mother to pass the virus to her child during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. The virus is passed on through body fluids, but not through sweat, urine, or saliva. The only risk of transmitting HIV through kissing is if both partners have mouth sores or bleeding gums. This means that sneezes, coughs, sharing bath towels or cutlery, public toilets, swimming pools, or skin-to-skin contact (on healthy, unbroken skin) will not lead to HIV transmission.

The body fluids that are capable of transmitting the infection are:

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Vaginal fluid
  • Menstrual blood
  • Breast milk
  • Fluids found in the lining of the anus

Some of the routes through which the HIV virus can infect the blood include:

  • The bloodstream (through contaminated needles or other equipment)
  • Through the lining inside the anus and genitals
  • Through the lining inside the mouth and eyes
  • Through cuts and sores”

What to do next

An HIV test is the only way to know for sure whether you are infected with the virus. It is important to speak to a doctor as soon as you think you may have been exposed, so that you can get tested. The kind of test you will take depends on the time that has passed since potential exposure to the virus, and involves giving a sample of your blood, which will be checked for signs of infection. Our doctors can advise you on how best to proceed. Give us a call and make your appointment today.

FAQ

How many people are living with HIV in the UK today?

HIV numbers in the UK are relatively low. In 2014, it was estimated that 103,700 people were living with the virus, or 1.9 per 1,000 people aged 15 and over, according to the charity Avert. Two thirds of them are men, a third are women. A third of the new HIV diagnoses among PWID in 2014 were made in London.

Which groups are more likely to be affected?

Among the HIV-positive UK population, those mostly affected are men who have sex with men (MSM), and black Africans. The MSM group has been the group most at-risk of HIV infection since the 1980s, and current estimates suggest that 1 in 20 MSM aged 15-44 are living with HIV in the UK, 1 in 5 of them undiagnosed (according to HIV Aware). Over half of the heterosexual population who were HIV positive in the UK in 2014 (21,300 men and 32,700 women) were of black African ethnicity. The median age of HIV diagnosis for heterosexuals has risen from 34 in 2005 to 40 in 2014, mostly likely due to the UK’s antenatal screening program.

What are the risk factors for HIV around drug use?

The risk is high among people who inject drugs (PWID), due to the high-risk practices associated with drug use, such as sharing needles, but the actual numbers in the UK are low (2,160 living with HIV in 2014).

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Please note that Walk In Clinic is a private medical centre and not an NHS service.