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HIV infection and AIDS

7-minute read

What is HIV and AIDS?

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

If HIV is not treated, most people will develop severe immune deficiency within 10 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.

What are the symptoms of HIV and AIDS?

Most people have no symptoms or a mild flu-like illness when they are first infected with HIV, and it may be difficult to tell them apart from other viral infections. This illness, called ‘seroconversion illness’, often occurs around 10 to 14 days after infection.

Seroconversion illness can have a range of symptoms including:

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

When should I see a doctor about HIV and AIDS?

The symptoms can all be caused by other illnesses. But if you think you could have contracted HIV, go and get a test. You are particularly at risk if:

  • you are a man who has sex with men
  • you have sex with people from countries with a high rate of HIV infection (including sub-Saharan Africa, Caribbean, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and Papua New Guinea)
  • you inject drugs
  • you have had tattoos or other piercings overseas using unsterile equipment
  • you have sex with someone else at risk of HIV
  • you are a sex worker
  • you have sex or share needles with any of the above
  • you have a sexually transmitted infection (STI). People can be infected with several different STIs at the same time. Having an STI can make it easier to become infected with HIV and pass it on to sexual partners

What causes HIV and AIDS?

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 is HIV and AIDS diagnosed?

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 30 minutes, but this will always need to be confirmed by laboratory tests.

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.

How is 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.

Living with HIV and AIDS

If you have HIV or AIDS, it’s very important to stick to your treatment plan. Take precautions so you don’t infect anyone else.

You can stay healthy by eating a healthy diet, avoiding raw meat and eggs, getting immunised and avoiding animals that could cause infections, including cats and birds. Be very thorough about washing your hands and maintaining good hygiene.

For advice on managing HIV and AIDS, visit the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations website.

Can HIV and AIDS be prevented?

The best way to prevent HIV 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

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 a HIV PEP hotline in your state or territory:

Alternatively you call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 or visit the Get PEP website for details on local PEP services across all states and territories.

There is a new way of preventing HIV infection called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). This is a daily pill for people who are at high risk of getting HIV. It’s highly effective at preventing HIV but does not prevent contracting other STIs. You can talk to your doctor or sexual health clinic about PrEP.

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:

  • Tell people you have sex or take drugs with. 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 breastfeeding. Read more about HIV and pregnancy.

Are there complications of HIV and AIDS?

Untreated HIV and AIDS weaken the immune system, putting you at greater risk of developing other conditions. These include:

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Last reviewed: July 2019

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