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 , but a person with AIDS can revert back to being someone who is just HIV positive.
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.
In 2017, there were 504 new diagnoses of HIV in Ireland.
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, nowadays doctors can prevent the baby becoming HIV positive by giving the 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
Diagnosis for HIV
You need to have a blood test to find out if you’ve 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.
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.
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.
Always carry one.
What treatment can you get?
There is no cure for HIV and AIDS, but there is treatment available that helps to slow down the progress of HIV. This treatment is called HAART (Highly Active Retroviral Therapy. It works to stop the virus spreading within your body and it requires keeping to a very strict medication schedule.
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.
HIV and pregnancy
If you are pregnant and HIV positive, you will receive treatment during your pregnancy and labour. This can prevent the virus being passed to your baby. You need to talk to your doctor about the available options. Your partner and recent partners should also be tested.
How can you avoid becoming infected with HIV?
There are a number of things you can do to avoid becoming infected with HIV.
Always use condoms during vaginal sex, anal sex and oral sex performed on a penis, especially with new partners. Use dental dams for oral sex performed on a vagina or anus. Don’t share sex toys. Make sure that both you and your partner are tested for sexually transmitted infections before deciding to stop using condoms.
Avoid sex if you or your partner have sores, raw skin or blisters around the vagina, anus (bum) or penis.
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.
Remember: The age of sexual consent in Ireland is 17. If you’re over 16, you can consent to medical treatment including any treatment or tests needed.