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What is HIV/AIDS?

First up, HIV and AIDS are not the same things. HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus passed on through body fluids like semen, blood and vaginal fluids. It can damage your immune system. There’s no vaccine or cure for HIV but it can be treated.  When left untreated it develops into AIDS. This stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. There’s a bit more info about HIV in our blog.

Are there any symptoms?

With HIV most people have mild symptoms or none. If there are symptoms, they might include flu-like symptoms, swollen glands or a rash on the body. These usually happen within a few weeks of being infected and can disappear in a week. 

With AIDS, if someone’s immune system is badly damaged their symptoms can include diarrhoea, appetite and weight loss, fever and extreme tiredness. The person might also be at risk of developing an AIDS-defining condition. AIDS-defining conditions are illnesses that wouldn’t be a threat to people with strong immune systems but can be fatal to someone whose immune system is damaged. 

How do you catch it?

There are a lot of rumours that go around about HIV. So let’s set some straight. You can’t tell if someone has HIV just by looking at them.  You can’t get HIV by kissing or cuddling. Mosquitoes don’t pass on HIV. You can’t get it by shaking hands or by sharing cutlery or cups, or by eating food made by someone with HIV. 

HIV can be passed on through blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk of an infected person. That means you can catch HIV during vaginal or anal sex and by sharing needles. Also, an infected mother can pass on the virus during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding. But, in Australia passing HIV from mother to child during pregnancy or delivery is rare.

What about prevention? Testing? Treatment?

The best way to prevent HIV is to use condoms when having anal, vaginal or oral sex.  And, if you use needles for injecting, then make sure they’re sterile. That means a big NO to sharing needles and syringes. Getting sterile needles and syringes is easy. They’re available at pharmacies or you can get them from your local Needle and Syringe Program (NSP) which is friendly, free and confidential. 

A test for HIV involves a simple blood test. If your results come back positive, this means you’re HIV positive. Your previous partners might be at risk so it’s important to let them know. This is called contact tracing. The law requires you to tell all future sexual partners of your diagnosis, even if you are using condoms. When it comes to treatment, the earlier you get treated the better. Treatment stops HIV progressing to AIDS. Treatment is not a cure but it does improve your health outcomes and reduces the chance of passing the virus onto others.