Many people think that HIV and AIDS are the same thing but this is not true. HIV is a virus, while AIDS is a condition that can develop if a person does not get treatment for HIV. A person with HIV, with proper treatment, may never get AIDS.
What is HIV?
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that attacks and weakens the body’s immune system (the body’s disease fighting system). HIV makes it difficult for your body to fight against infections and cancers that it would normally be able to fight off.
What is AIDS?
If a HIV positive person does not get proper treatment, the virus may progress to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). AIDS is an umbrella term for many different opportunistic infections and cancers that can occur from having a weakened immune system due to the HIV virus.
How is HIV transmitted?
The virus is passed through certain bodily fluids. This means that blood, semen, women’s vaginal liquids, breast milk and secretions from the anus can all carry the virus.
You can become infected with HIV from sex (vaginal, anal or oral) with an infected person who is not on treatment without using a condom, dental dam or other forms of protection.
You can also become infected with HIV from infected blood and blood products and by sharing needles, syringes or other injecting equipment that hasn’t been properly sterilised.
Passing HIV in pregnancy
A pregnant person with HIV can pass the virus to their baby during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. However, doctors can now prevent a baby from becoming HIV positive by giving the pregnant person special treatment before, during and after delivery. It is recommended not to breastfeed when you are HIV-positive to avoid passing the virus on to the baby.
Ways you cannot become infected
There’s a lot of misunderstanding around HIV and how it’s passed on. Here are some key points to know:
- You cannot become infected with HIV by receiving or donating blood, as all donated blood is screened
- You cannot become infected with HIV from hugging, kissing, massage or from toilet seats
- You also cannot get it by sharing cutlery/cups or swimming in the same pool as a person with HIV
Getting tested for HIV
You need to have a blood test to find out if you are HIV positive. It can take between four and twelve weeks after initial exposure to HIV for antibodies to develop and be detected in a test. If you test within this period you may be asked to return and test again. Rapid HIV testing is now available through MPOWER. You can also test for HIV at home by taking an at-home STI test.
What are the symptoms of HIV?
It takes seven to ten years for many HIV positive people to show symptoms of the illness. Early symptoms can include swollen lymph glands in the throat, armpits and groin, fever, headaches, tiredness and muscle pain. If you are HIV positive you might be healthy for years, but can still pass the virus to other people.
What are the four stages of an untreated HIV infection?
There are four stages if a person does not get the proper treatment for the HIV virus.
Stage 1 – Infection: This is when the person first develops the virus after being exposed to HIV.
Stage 2 – Asymptomatic: During this stage, a person may feel well even though HIV is actually weakening their immune system. They don’t appear to have any symptoms.
Stage 3 – Symptomatic: Once the immune system has become weakened, a person develops symptoms of HIV such as tiredness, weight loss, thrush, stomach problems and mouth ulcers.
Stage 4 – Progression to AIDS: Once a person’s immune system has become extremely weakened and they have developed certain infection/s, they will be diagnosed with AIDS.
What treatment is available to prevent HIV?
PrEP is a medicine which is taken to reduce the chance of getting HIV. It works by having enough of the drug in your body that if you are exposed to HIV, it can block it before it has a chance to infect you. Taking PrEP once every day reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90% and by more than 70% among people who inject drugs. Learn more about PrEP.
What is PEP?
PEP stands for post-exposure prophylaxis. It’s a month-long course of antiretroviral drugs. If taken within 72 hours of first coming into contact with HIV, it greatly reduces your chances of contracting the virus.
If you realise you may have recently been exposed to HIV, whether through unprotected sex or the use of an unclean needle, you’ll probably feel pretty scared and confused. But if your contact with HIV was within the past 72 hours, and if you act now, you may be able to prevent the virus from taking hold. Learn more about PEP.
You will generally attend a specialist HIV clinic every three months or so to get testing done and your treatment monitored. They will also be able to advise you on safer sex and other practicalities of living with HIV. You can also get emotional support from hospital social workers and HIV organisations.
How can you avoid becoming infected with HIV?
There are a number of things you can do to avoid becoming infected with HIV.
Looking after your sexual health
There are many great options to help protect your sexual health, but none of them are 100% effective. Even if you use condoms every time you have penetrative sex, you are still at risk of getting genital warts and herpes, as these can be passed through skin-to-skin contact. Going for an STI check or taking a home STI testing kit with a partner before having sex, can be a great way of protecting yourself and those you have sex with against STIs and HIV. However, not all STI checks check for all STIs, so it is important to speak to your healthcare provider and ask them what is being tested for as part of your screening.
Discussing with your sexual partners the type of contraception or protection options available to you, and agreeing on a type that works for everyone involved can help to reduce the risk of pregnancy, STIs and HIV. Looking out for sores or symptoms on a partner’s genitals before having sex with them, can help to identify STIs that they may not be aware of. If you do see any signs that someone may have an STI, do not have sex with them until you know for certain it is safe to do so. Asking someone about their sexual health history is the responsible thing to do before having sex, and it should not be taken as an insult if someone asks you about yours.
If you take drugs involving injections, never share needles or other drug using equipment with others. Check out Merchant’s Quay’s safer injecting guide here.
Learn about PEP and PrEP
Go to your local A&E or STI clinic for Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) if you think you have been exposed to the virus. This medicine must be taken within 72 hours of exposure, and you must complete the full course of medicine.
You can also take a drug called PrEP, which taken once a day can prevent infection if exposed to the virus. PrEP is for people who have not been diagnosed with HIV, but who could be at risk of contracting the virus.
Looking after your mental health after a HIV diagnosis
If you are diagnosed with HIV you might feel a mixture of emotions. Unfortunately, there is still stigma in our society surrounding HIV that can cause some people to feel shame about living with it. However, like any other healthcare diagnosis, you are not to blame for having HIV and have not done anything “wrong”. Being diagnosed with HIV can have a negative impact on your mental health and wellbeing and if you don’t feel comfortable telling friends or family about it, you might feel isolated and alone. If you have found out you have HIV and you’re finding it difficult to cope, there are things you can do to support your mental health.
- Reach out to HIV services for support
- Take time out to do something you enjoy and practice self-care
- Reach out for mental health support if you need it. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a friend or family member, our 24/7 anonymous text service, 50808, can help
- Be patient with yourself and allow yourself to feel your emotions. It’s ok to be upset when you find out you need healthcare treatment. It’s important to take the time you need to adjust
Feeling overwhelmed and want to talk to someone?
- Get anonymous support 24/7 with our text message support service
- Connect with a trained volunteer who will listen to you, and help you to move forward feeling better
- Free-text SPUNOUT to 50808 to begin
- Find out more about our text message support service
If you are a customer of the 48 or An Post network or cannot get through using the ‘50808’ short code please text HELLO to 086 1800 280 (standard message rates may apply). Some smaller networks do not support short codes like ‘50808’.