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HealthInfo Canterbury

HIV & AIDS

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. HIV is a virus that damages the cells in your immune system and weakens its ability to fight everyday infections and diseases. Being HIV positive means that you've become infected with the virus.

The HIV virus infects and damages CD4 cells, which are an important part of your immune system. If enough CD4 cells are infected and damaged, your body can't fight off certain germs, which can lead to infection and illness.

AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It's when a person's immune system has been badly damaged by the HIV virus and their body has become too weak to fight off many infections. This is the last stage of HIV infection. A person with AIDS can develop infections and illnesses that are life threatening.

How can I avoid getting HIV?

Using a condom during sex is the best way to protect yourself from getting or passing on HIV. People who inject drugs can avoid HIV being passed on by not sharing drug injecting equipment.

HIV infection is passed on through body fluids such as blood, semen, rectal and vaginal fluids, and breast milk. Saliva, sweat and urine don't carry enough of the virus to infect another person. So HIV can't be passed on through kissing or touching an infected person.

If an infected person has been on medication and has had an undetectable viral load for at least six months, they can't pass on HIV either. An undetectable viral load means that medication has brought the level of virus down to the point where blood tests can't detect it.

If you're at risk of catching HIV, it's possible that Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) could be right for you. PrEP is where you take tenofovir and emtricitabine medication that can reduce your risk of developing HIV infection if you're exposed to it. Talk to your doctor about this if you think it might be useful for you.

How do I know if I have HIV?

To find out if you have HIV you need to have an HIV blood test.

It's important to get tested. The earlier in the disease you're diagnosed, the earlier you can start treatment. You can have an HIV test through your GP, family planning clinic or sexual health centre.

All pregnant women in New Zealand are offered HIV testing as part of their antenatal blood tests. When you're pregnant it's important to know if you're HIV positive, so you can take medicines that make it much less likely you'll pass HIV to your baby.

How is HIV treated?

In the developed world, HIV is no longer a death sentence. While there's no cure for HIV, there are very effective treatments with antiretroviral medicines. These work by stopping the virus reproducing. If they take the medicine their doctor advises, many people diagnosed with HIV can expect to live long and healthy lives.

What can I do to look after myself with HIV?

Being diagnosed with HIV can be very scary. But it's important to remember that if you take the available medicine, you're likely to live a long and healthy life.

It's important to get the right support and to find out as much as you can about the disease so you can make good decisions about your life and treatment.

Many people are still very afraid of an HIV diagnosis and still feel there's a stigma that comes with it. This can lead to avoiding being tested and not seeking good support and treatment. The following links provide information about the condition and where you can get support and information.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed June 2018. Last updated November 2018.

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Page reference: 47045

Review key: HIHIV-47045