Learn About HIV

Home / Living with HIV / Learn About HIV

In some countries and cultures HIV is only known as AIDS, and the term ‘HIV’ is not used. There can also be a lack of information and understanding of the different stages of the infection, and at which stage and how HIV becomes AIDS.

What is HIV?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that damages the immune system so the body becomes less effective at fighting off infection and other diseases. Fortunately, there are treatments which can minimise the amount of HIV in the body and control the damage to the immune system. These treatments can also greatly decrease the chances of passing HIV on to others. Currently there is no vaccine against, or cure for, HIV.

What is AIDS?

Living with HIV does not mean having AIDS. In fact, in Australia it is rare that a person is diagnosed with AIDS because HIV treatment is always available and most people take the treatment.

However, if HIV treatments are not taken as prescribed, the immune system can become severely damaged. If left long enough, the damage can become so severe that the immune system can no longer function and ‘opportunistic infections’ develop.

Opportunistic infections are infections which occur when the immune system has been weakened. This means that the immune system is no longer able to fight against bacteria or viruses. It is then possible for serious, potentially life threatening, infections to occur. A person at this stage is described as having AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).

AIDS is a serious, life-threatening condition; however, it can be reversed if a person gets the right medical treatment. This works by repairing damage to the immune system enabling it to have a natural ability to fight infections. Remember that treatment does not mean cure. Treatment works at controlling the virus and improving the immune system.

How HIV Affects the Body

The immune system is the system that protects your body against infection and disease. It is made up of many different cells which work together to first identify viruses and bacteria that cause infection and disease and then destroy them. An important type of immune system cell that fights infection is called a CD4 cell (or T-cell).

HIV attacks the immune system by destroying the CD4 cells. Over time, HIV reproduces itself within the CD4 cells, creating copies of the virus and infecting other CD4 cells. The more CD4 cells destroyed through infection, the weaker the immune system becomes. As the immune system gets weaker, the risk of developing infections and illness becomes much greater. Over time, and without treatment, the number of CD4 cells can be very low, to the point of developing serious illnesses and AIDS. To fight HIV, the body will produce antibodies. However, the antibodies cannot keep up with the amount of virus being reproduced. Taking treatment helps your body fight the virus effectively.

Some people have no symptoms when they first get the HIV infection, but many will experience flu-like symptoms such as tiredness, headache, lethargy, aching joints, fevers, night sweats, a rash, diarrhoea and/or swollen lymph glands. Because the illness feels a lot like the flu or other illnesses, many people do not recognise it as the first sign of HIV.

People with HIV can live for long periods of time (up to 10 years or more) without showing signs of illness or progressing to AIDS. This will vary from person to person depending on a number of factors. Given there may be no signs for many years, testing for HIV is very important so that people can access early treatment, improve their health and live a long life

How is HIV transmitted?

Many people living with HIV worry about passing it on to others. It is important for everyone to know how HIV is transmitted so that myths and misinformation can be challenged and people can live free from fear.

HIV can only be transmitted when the virus enters the blood stream of a person who is HIV-negative. HIV is found in body fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids, anal mucous and breast milk. Infection occurs when body fluids from an infected person enter the blood stream of another person. For transmission to occur, HIV must be present in these fluids in relatively high quantities. The amount of HIV in body fluids varies, which is why HIV is not transmitted through tears, sweat, saliva, urine or faeces.

HIV can be transmitted by:

  • Having sex without a condom.
  • Using unsterilized body piercing or tattooing equipment.
  • Sharing needles, syringes and other equipment for injecting drugs.
  • Mother-to-child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
  • Receiving blood transfusion and/or blood products in some overseas countries (In Australia, blood transfusions and blood products are very safe).

HIV is not passed on by hugging, kissing, coughing, touching, crying, spitting, mosquitoes, sharing cups or cutlery or any other form of informal or household contact (such as from a toilet seat or phone).

Transmission fast facts

  1. Having sex without a condom or sharing injecting equipment are the most common ways HIV is transmitted in Australia.
  2. Taking HIV treatment and reducing the amount of virus in the blood reduces the risk of passing HIV on to others.
  3. Having anal sex without a condom is higher risk for HIV transmission than having vaginal sex without a condom.
  4. Having oral sex without a condom is very low risk for HIV transmission unless a person has cuts or sores in their mouth (the risk increases if there is ejaculation in the mouth).
  5. The risk of HIV transmission through sex increases if either partner has a sexually transmissible infection (STI).

Modern HIV treatments have a major impact, reducing the amount of HIV virus in the body. This can have great benefits for a person’s health, as well as greatly decreasing their chances of transmitting the virus to anyone else. (See AFAO’s Living Well: Women with HIV – Treatments for more information)

HIV can also be passed from mother-to-child through pregnancy, at delivery or through breastfeeding but there are a range of interventions to prevent transmission. Mother-to-child transmission in Australia is rare because of the availability of HIV treatment during pregnancy. When it has occurred, it is usually because the mother was not diagnosed during pregnancy, so interventions were not applied (See AFAO’s Living Well: Women with HIV- Having Children for more information).