HIV and AIDS

HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, and weakens your ability to fight infections and disease. It is most commonly transmitted by having sex without a condom.

What is HIV?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It infects particular cells called CD4 cells that are found in the blood. CD4 cells fight infection. After they become infected, the CD4 cells are destroyed by HIV. Although the body will attempt to produce more CD4 cells, their numbers will eventually decline and the immune system will stop working.

There is no cure for HIV, but there are treatments to enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life.

What is AIDS?

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the final stage of HIV infection when your body can no longer fight life-threatening infections. With early diagnosis and effective treatment, most people with HIV will not go on to develop AIDS.

How common is HIV?

The number of people living with HIV in the UK continues to rise. This is because more cases are being diagnosed and people are living longer due to more effective medication. The number of people living with undiagnosed HIV remains high and it is estimated that around one in five people living with HIV are unaware of their infection.

The number of people living with HIV is proportionately lower in Northern Ireland than in the other UK countries, but over the past ten years the percentage increase in new HIV diagnoses in Northern Ireland is the highest of the UK countries.

In Northern Ireland during 2014, there were 94 new cases of HIV diagnosed and over 800 people received HIV-related care.

How do you get HIV?

HIV is found in the body fluids of an infected person,which includes semen, vaginal and anal fluids, blood, and breast milk. To get HIV, one of these fluids from someone with HIV has to get into your blood.

HIV is a fragile virus and does not survive outside the body for long. HIV is most commonly transmitted through vaginal or anal sex without a condom.

Other ways of getting HIV include:

  • using a contaminated needle, syringe or other equipment to inject drugs
  • transmission from a mother to her child before, during or shortly after birth however, with medical treatment it is possible to prevent the virus from being passed on by a mother to her child
  • through blood transfusions however, since 1985 all blood donated in the UK must be screened for HIV - screening policies in the developing world may not be as rigorous, so there is a possible risk of developing HIV if you receive a blood transfusion in certain parts of the world
  • through oral sex or sharing sex toys

HIV cannot be transmitted from:

  • kissing
  • being sneezed on by someone with HIV
  • sharing baths, towels or cutlery with an HIV-infected person
  • swimming in a pool or sitting on a toilet seat that someone with HIV has used
  • animals or insects such as mosquitoes

Saliva, sweat and urine do not contain enough of the HIV virus to infect another person.

People who are at increased risk

HIV can affect anyone but people who are at a higher risk include:

  • men who have had unprotected sex with men
  • women who have had unprotected sex with men who have sex with men
  • people who have had unprotected sex with a person who has lived in, or travelled in, Africa
  • people who inject drugs
  • people who have had unprotected sex with somebody who has injected drugs
  • people who have another sexually transmitted infection
  • people who have received a blood transfusion while in Africa, eastern Europe, the countries of the former Soviet Union, Asia or central and southern America

How can I protect myself from HIV?

Anyone who has sex without a condom or shares needles is at risk of HIV. The best way to prevent HIV is to use a condom for sex and to never share needles, syringes or other injecting equipment. Knowing your HIV status and that of your partner is also important.

You should use condoms for oral, vaginal and anal sex and pieces of latex (dental dams or plastic wrap) which act as a barrier, for oral sex on the vagina or anus.

Condoms are more likely to break during anal sex, so you should use generous amounts of water-based lubricant in addition to the condom to reduce the chances of the condom breaking.

Cuts, sores and bleeding gums increase the risk of spreading HIV so you should cover any cuts or sores before sex, or avoid sex until they are healed.

It is important to continue to practise safer sex even if you, and your sexual partner, both have HIV. This is because it is possible to expose yourself to a new strain of the virus that your medicine will not be able to control.

Further advice and information is available on the link below

If you inject drugs, do not share needles as this could expose you to HIV and other blood-borne viruses. Speak to your GP or drug counsellor about needle exchange programmes and methadone programmes if you are a heroin user.

The information on this page was provided by the Department of Health.

For further information please see terms and conditions.

This page was reviewed March 2016

This page is due for review April 2018

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