What is HIV?

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that damages the body’s immune system so it cannot fight off infections. It is most commonly transmitted (passed on) through vaginal or anal sex without using a condom (unprotected sex).

HIV is preventable and treatable, but it is not curable. The earlier that someone with HIV gets a diagnosis, the more likely it is that further problems can be prevented.

Many people in the UK are carrying the infection without knowing it, so it is important to test regularly for HIV infection (at least once a year, or whenever you have a new sexual partner).

How is it passed on?

HIV is most commonly passed on through unprotected (without a condom) vaginal or anal sex.

It can also be passed from mother to child at birth, or transmitted when injecting drug users share needles. In rare cases, HIV can be transmitted through transfusion of infected blood.

People at higher risk of contracting HIV are:

  • Men who have sex with men (most at risk of getting HIV)
  • Women who have sex with men who have sex with men (exposed to a higher risk)
  • People who have had sex without a condom with a person who has lived or travelled in Africa
  • People who inject drugs
  • People who have had unprotected sex with people who inject drugs
  • People who have received a blood transfusion in Africa, eastern Europe, the countries of the former Soviet Union, Asia or central and southern America


Most people will experience no signs or symptoms of HIV. However, occasionally the HIV infection may cause a flu like illness a few weeks after infection. Symptoms can include:

  • Fever (raised temperature)
  • Body rash
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen glands
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Joint aches and pains
  • Muscle pains

After this, people with HIV usually remain symptom free for several years.

However, as their immune system becomes weaker they are less able to fight common infections, for example, pneumonia or tuberculosis. As the immune system also plays a role in preventing the development of cancer, people with HIV are more likely to acquire certain cancers.

The earlier that someone with HIV gets a diagnosis, the more likely it is that these problems can be prevented. If you think you are at risk of HIV take a test as soon as possible.

How to protect yourself from HIV

  • Condoms and lubricant are very effective at preventing HIV infection. You can get free condoms via the Condom Distribution Service, from Brook Southend, as well as some GP surgeries and pharmacies. You can also purchase them in pharmacies, supermarkets and online.
  • PrEP is a pill you can take before sex that offers near complete protection from HIV. It is a very effective tool for people at risk of HIV, especially those who may find it difficult to use condoms every time. PrEP is now available on the NHS. Get in touch with our clinic for details on accessing PrEP. You can also buy generic PrEP online. Find out more about PrEP.
  • If you have been exposed to HIV in the last three days, then a short course of anti-HIV medication (PEP) can prevent you contracting the infection. If you think you may have been exposed to HIV in the last three days, you should get in touch with our clinic. The sooner that you start this medication, the more likely it is to be effective. If you can't find a clinic open near you, you can also access PEP from any Accident and Emergency Department (A&E). Find out more about PEP.

Getting tested

HIV can’t be tested until four weeks after exposure to the virus. The test does not detect the virus itself but the antibodies that your body has developed to fight it.

Testing for HIV involves taking a small sample of blood for analysis. The test is either sent away to a laboratory and results come back in a few days, or same-day tests can give an instant result. If you are getting a test in clinic, this is usually from a nurse who will take a blood sample with a needle. Some clinics, such as Brook Southend, also offer Rapid HIV tests, which use a blood finger prick test, and offer instant results.

Anyone can get a test at a Brook Southend. If you are over 16, you are able to order a free HIV test kit to complete at home.

The STI test kit

If you're doing one of our postal STI tests, the HIV test is done with a finger prick. You can watch the blood test instruction video and see the instruction leaflet that comes in the kit.

HIV may take four weeks to show up in a test from the time of infection. If you are in any doubt about window periods, you should do a test now, and another test at a later date.


Getting treated

There is no cure for HIV, but there are treatments that enable people to live a long and healthy life. Most treatments for HIV involve taking anti-viral medications.

Being on successful treatment and achieving what is called 'an undetectable viral load' also means that people cannot pass on the virus to sexual partners.

If your HIV test comes back as 'reactive', we may need to do a confirmation test first (if you tested via a postal test or a rapid HIV test).

If your test is confirmed positive, we will help support you to access follow-up care, support and treatment, to ensure you live a full and healthy life. We can also offer you support on telling your partners and helping them access HIV testing, PEP and follow up support.

What will happen if I don't get treated?

Without effective HIV treatment, the virus can attack and weaken your immune system. The long term impact of this is that you're likely to become vulnerable to illnesses (for example, heart attack, stroke and some cancers) and infections that you would otherwise have been able to fight off.

Treatment protects you. A person with HIV who is taking treatment and has an undetectable viral load cannot pass on HIV and can expect to live a normal lifespan.

What can I do if I think I've been exposed to HIV?

If you think you may have been exposed to HIV within the last 72 hours (three days), it is also possible to take anti-HIV medication called PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) which may stop you becoming infected.

PEP is most effective if taken within the first 24 hours, though can be taken up to 72 hours after exposure.

PEP is a 28-day treatment of powerful drugs and is not guaranteed to work. It is only recommended after high-risk of exposure (for example, if a partner is known to be HIV positive).

Find out more about accessing PEP in Southend-on-Sea.

What happens if I am diagnosed with HIV?

If you test positive for HIV, you will have an initial discussion with a doctor or specialist nurse and the opportunity to ask questions. You will then be referred to an HIV treatment service to begin treatment, known as antiretroviral therapy (ART) or highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), straight away.

HIV treatment can't cure HIV, but it can help people with HIV live longer, healthier lives and protect their partners by stopping HIV transmission once the viral load is undetectable.