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HIV infection and AIDS

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the virus that causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). HIV damages the immune system, and without treatment, can lead to serious infections and cancers over time.

Rapid HIV test.
A rapid HIV test can provide a result within 10-20 minutes.

The difference between having an HIV infection and being given a diagnosis of AIDS is related to the presence of certain types of infections and cancers.  It means not all people with HIV have AIDS.

People with HIV who take effective treatment are unlikely to develop AIDS and have a near-normal life expectancy.

What are the symptoms and signs of HIV and AIDS?

Most people have a mild flu-like illness when they are first infected with HIV, and it may be difficult to tell apart from other viral infections. This illness, called ‘seroconversion illness’, often occurs around 10-14 days after infection.

People with HIV who take effective treatment are unlikely to develop AIDS.

Seroconversion illness can have a range of symptoms including:

  • fever
  • tiredness
  • headache
  • sore muscles and joints
  • sore throat
  • swollen lymph glands in the neck, underarm or groin areas
  • rash.

Clues that the illness could be HIV include having:

  • symptoms similar to glandular fever
  • flu-like symptoms outside the normal flu season
  • fever for longer than three days
  • a rash
  • recent high risk exposure to HIV.

After the initial illness, people with HIV infection usually have no other symptoms, however the virus remains in the body.

People with HIV who take effective treatment are unlikely to develop AIDS and have near normal life expectancy, but if left untreated, most will develop severe immune deficiency within ten years. It is this untreated viral infection that can lead to AIDS, as the body becomes less able to fight infections and protect against cancers developing because the immune system stops working properly.

If you think you might have been exposed to HIV, or have an illness that could be due to HIV, see your doctor to discuss getting tested. Early diagnosis is important and can improve the long-term course of the illness.

How do you get HIV?

HIV is in the blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk of an infected person.

It can be spread by exposure to these body fluids by:

  • unprotected anal or vaginal sex without a condom
  • sharing drug injecting equipment
  • tattooing, piercing and other procedures with unsterile needles or equipment
  • transmission from mother to baby during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding
  • oral sex and sharps injuries, although this is rare.

It’s important to remember that HIV is not spread through activities such as kissing, sharing cups and cutlery, normal social contact, toilet seats or mosquitoes.

How do you prevent HIV infection?

The best way to prevent infection is to:

  • use condoms and a water-based lubricant for anal and vaginal sex
  • never share needles, syringes and other injecting equipment
  • make sure all tattooing, piercing and other procedures use sterilised equipment.

If you have HIV infection, you are expected to prevent the infection of others and notify anyone who is at risk of exposure from you.

If you have HIV infection:

  • tell your sexual and drug use contacts. Your doctor can help you decide who may be at risk and help you to contact them either personally or anonymously.
  • tell anyone you intend to have sex with about your HIV status (even when you use a condom). This is required by law in some states.

If you are pregnant, talk to your doctor about starting antiretroviral treatment which can prevent the infection passing to the baby during pregnancy, childbirth, or breast-feeding

What if I have been exposed to HIV?

If you think you have been exposed to HIV, see a doctor as soon as possible.

There are medications which can sometimes prevent HIV from infecting a person who has been exposed. This is known as Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP). It is best to start PEP as soon as possible, and within 72 hours (3 days) of exposure. You can find out more about PEP by talking to a doctor or calling the PEP Information Line on 1800 737 669.

It is also important to be tested for HIV. Your doctor or sexual health clinic can order a blood test for HIV. They may also use a rapid test in the office that can provide a result within 10-20 minutes. There is no home testing available in Australia yet. An early diagnosis can help you get the best treatment, prevent the progression to AIDS and reduce the chance of spreading the infection to others.

Whatever type of test you have, it can take up to 24 days (and sometimes longer) following exposure for blood to show positive for infection with HIV. This is known as the ‘window period’. So you may need more than one test over time to know for sure if you do or do not have an HIV infection. It is important to use safe sex and safe injecting practices while waiting for the test results, and maintaining these practices after testing, even if you get a negative result, will reduce your risk of future exposure and infection.

Should I get tested?

If you think you might have been exposed then it is important to get tested.

Routine testing, even if you use safe sex practices, is also recommended for:

  • men who have sex with men
  • injecting drug users
  • sex workers
  • people from parts of the world where HIV is widespread (sub-Saharan Africa, Caribbean, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma or PNG)
  • people who have had tattoos or piercings using unsterile equipment
  • sexual and drug use contacts of all of the above
  • people with a sexually transmitted illness (STI). People can be infected with several different sexually transmitted infections (STIs) at the same time. Having an STI can make it easier to become infected with HIV and pass it on to sexual partners.

How are HIV and AIDS treated?

There is no vaccine or cure for HIV infection. However, there are effective treatments available that can help prevent the progression to AIDS and help ensure a near-normal life expectancy.

Improvements in treatment now mean that HIV infection is a manageable chronic disease for many people in industrialised countries like Australia.

More information

There are a number of resources and services available if you need help or more information on HIV and AIDS:

  • The Sexual Health Infoline: Freecall 1800 451 624
  • ACON or freecall 1800 063 060
  • PEP Information Line: 1800 737 669.

Sources: Australasian Society for HIV Medicine (HIV fact sheet, 2012 – PDF Document, HIV viral hep STI guide for general practice, 2008 – PDF Docmument)), Family Planning (HIV factsheet, 2012)NSW Health (HIV fact sheet, 2013), Sexually Transmissible Infections: STIs (HIV-AIDS).

Last reviewed: 
January, 2014