Getting tested for HIV means that, if you’re HIV positive, you can start your treatment before the infection causes too much damage to your body and health. This is known as ‘early diagnosis’.
Why to get tested for HIV
It’s important to get tested because someone with undiagnosed HIV can look and feel healthy for years, but the infection will be damaging their health. They can also pass the infection on to others.
Jason Warriner, clinical director at HIV charity the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), says: “If the infection is diagnosed early, when a person is fit and well, and they get treatment and care, we’re looking at normal life expectancy. But they’ve got to be getting treatment and care, and it’s got to start early.”
It’s estimated that 98,400 people in the UK have HIV, and around 1 in 5 of these (21,900 in total), don’t know they have it.
HIV is passed on via bodily fluids (such as blood, semen or vaginal fluid), for example during sex without a condom, or through sharing needles to inject drugs. Find out more about getting HIV.
Why early diagnosis and treatment of HIV matters
Once HIV is in a person’s body, it infects and destroys cells (called CD4 cells) in the blood. CD4 cells are responsible for fighting infection, and are vital for your immune system.
If you know you have HIV, doctors can regularly test your blood to see how your immune system is doing. The tests measure the number of CD4 cells in your blood (your CD4 count), and the amount of HIV in your blood (the viral load).
Your doctor will know when it’s best for you to start HIV treatment, which is usually given as a combination of tablets. Starting treatment can raise your CD4 count and lower your viral load.
“We try to get people started on treatment when their CD4 count is 350,” says Warriner. A healthy adult who doesn’t have HIV can have a CD4 count of between 600 and 1,200. “When the CD4 gets down to 200, opportunistic infections can start, such as TB, oral candida (thrush), Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) and pneumonia.”
Why late HIV diagnosis is serious
If you have HIV and it isn’t treated, the HIV will eventually damage your immune system so much that you are likely to develop a serious, life-threatening condition, such as pneumonia. It typically takes about five to 10 years for the virus to damage the immune system in this way.
If you’re diagnosed with HIV at this stage (known as ‘late diagnosis’), antiretroviral drug treatment will work. However, your overall prognosis (your health outlook) may be affected. In 2009, half of adults diagnosed with HIV were diagnosed late.
“The vast majority of people who die from HIV are those who are diagnosed late,” says Warriner. “When people aren’t diagnosed with HIV until they present late, at A&E or their GP, with symptoms of a serious infection, then that can affect their prognosis.”
Getting an HIV test
The only way to know whether you have HIV is to have an HIV test. You may feel worried about getting tested, but if you do have HIV, the sooner you find out, the better.
You can get tested at:
- sexual health clinics or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics at hospitals (find sexual health services near you)
- your GP surgery (ask your doctor or practice nurse whether your surgery offers HIV testing)
- some contraception and young people’s clinics
- Fastest clinics, which are rapid testing clinics run by THT
- a private clinic
- an antenatal clinic, if you are pregnant
- local drugs agencies, if you are an injecting drug user
It is up to you to choose where you would feel most comfortable being tested.
You can protect yourself against HIV by using a condom every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex. This will also help prevent you passing on the infection if you have it.
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