HIV: the facts

In 2012, there were 6,360 new diagnoses of HIV in the UK. At the end of 2012, around 100,000 people were living with HIV. Find out how to protect against HIV, and where to get tested if you're worried.

It's estimated that nearly a quarter of people who have HIV don't know they have it.

Of the 6,360 new cases of HIV in 2012, around 45% were infected through heterosexual sex, and 51% through sex between men.

The remainder acquired their infection in other ways, such as sharing needles to inject drugs, and mother-to-baby transmission in pregnant women.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) attacks the body’s immune system (our natural defence against infection and disease). In late-stage HIV infection, also known as AIDS, the weakened immune system means the body is more vulnerable to life-threatening conditions such as pneumonia and cancer.

The virus is passed on through exchanging bodily fluids (such as semen, blood, or vaginal secretions) in the following ways:

  • unprotected sex (sex without a condom): this is the most common form of transmission, and includes vaginal, anal and oral sex 
  • sharing needles to inject drugs 
  • birth or breastfeeding: a mother can pass the virus to her baby (this can be prevented with medication) 

HIV can affect anybody. People with HIV can look and feel healthy for years. The largest number of new cases in the UK currently occurs in two main groups.  

“Around 80% of all diagnoses of HIV are among gay men and people from black African communities," says Dr Rosemary Gillespie, chief executive at the Terrence Higgins Trust.

However, people who aren't in these two groups are not risk-free. The virus passes on through heterosexual sex.

“You can’t tell by looking at someone whether they’ve got HIV or not,” says Gillespie. “Whoever you are, if you’re having sex with a new partner or with someone whose HIV status you don’t know, always protect yourself by using a condom.”

Read about using condoms.

If you’re worried about HIV

Get tested. There is no cure, but there is treatment that can delay the start of symptoms. “If treatment is started late, it’s less effective,” says Gillespie. “If you think you may have been exposed to the virus, get an HIV test.”

Don’t assume that blood tests you’ve had in the past will have detected HIV. Blood is only tested for HIV if you specifically consent to it.

It can take up to three months after exposure to the virus for HIV to be detected in the blood, so you may be asked to come back for another test in three months' time.

You can get an HIV test at: 

  • a genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinic
  • some GP surgeries
  • some contraception and young people’s services
  • a Fastest clinic (rapid-testing clinics run by the Terrence Higgins Trust: use the THT service finder to search for a clinic near you)
  • local community-run clinics and testing services (run by various organisations)
  • an antenatal clinic if you’re pregnant  all pregnant women in the UK are offered an HIV test

THT also offers Fastest Direct, a free online HIV test service for African people and gay or bisexual men.

If you have an HIV test at your GP surgery, this will go on your medical record and can be seen by your GP, practice nurse and other health professionals involved in your care.

If you go to a GUM or sexual health clinic, your records won't be seen by anyone outside the clinic, including your GP. You may get the results in hours, days or weeks, depending on where you're tested. 

Find your nearest sexual health clinic.

If the test is positive

If the test is positive, you'll be referred to a specialist HIV clinic, where a number of different professionals can offer you help and support. These may include:

  • a counsellor
  • a social worker
  • a dietitian
  • a dentist
  • specialist doctors with experience of treating HIV
  • emergency "walk-in" doctors
  • a pharmacist

Your doctor can arrange blood tests to show what effect HIV is having on your immune system and discuss whether you need to start treatment.

Treatment involves taking a number of tablets every day. “Think about treatment early. You need to start taking it at a point that’s right for your immune system,” says Gillespie. “Don’t leave it too late.”

Find out about coping with a positive HIV test.

You will also need to think about who you want to tell about your HIV status (called disclosure) and about changes to your lifestyle that can protect your health and that of others.

You don’t have to tell past sexual partners about your positive test, but it is strongly advised that you do so they can also get tested. Staff at the clinic can contact them for you without revealing your name, if you prefer.

You can get medical help, support and counselling from the clinic, charities or other organisations.

Don't delay having a test if you think you’ve been exposed to HIV, because you need to start looking after your health as soon as possible. 

Find out about:

Healthtalkonline has videos and written interviews with people talking about their experiences of living with HIV.

To speak to an advisor for support, advice and information on sexual health and HIV, call THT Direct on 0808 802 1221.

HIV: Mick's story

Mick Mason was infected with HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C through contaminated blood products 25 years ago. He describes the effects and side effects of treatment, how he copes with the infection, and how attitudes towards HIV have changed.

Media last reviewed: 20/08/2013

Next review due: 20/08/2015

Page last reviewed: 17/11/2014

Next review due: 17/11/2016

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