What is HIV?

You might not think it affects you - or maybe you just don't want to talk about it.

If you are a sexually active gay or bisexual man, chances are you have already come into contact with the virus - but you might not know it. By exploring this section of the LGF website you will understand how HIV affects you and the men you have sex with.

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What are HIV and AIDS?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus that weakens the immune system, leaving us open to infection.

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and is caused by HIV. AIDS is generally used to describe the latter stages of HIV infection when the immune system has stopped working effectively, and the person develops a life threatening illness(es) such as pneumonia.

You cannot get infected with AIDS. You can however be infected with HIV which could then develop into AIDS. Specialists now prefer to use the term ‘advanced’ or ‘late stage’ HIV infection.

Myths

Can HIV be caught from kissing?

Only some body fluids contain enough HIV to pass on the virus. These fluids are blood, cum and pre-cum. Although spit, sweat and piss can contain the virus, they don’t have enough to infect someone.

Isn't oral sex safe?

Oral sex is much less risky but there is still a small chance that HIV could enter the bloodstream through cuts, sores or ulcers that occur in your mouth or on your cock.

Wouldn't I know if I had HIV?

Not everybody who gets infected with HIV will get symptoms and if they do they may just be like flu. The only way to know for sure is by having an HIV test.

Surely there is a cure for HIV?

There is still no cure for HIV. There are drugs that help keep it under control but they don’t always work, have to be taken every day and won’t completely get rid of the virus. So once you’ve got HIV, you’ve got it for the rest of your life.

Is HIV a death sentence?

Advances in treatments mean that HIV can be lived with and hopefully won’t result in an early death. But it’s a fact that the Northwest has the most HIV related deaths in the UK.

So, if you have HIV you need to look after your health otherwise your body’s immune system won’t be able to fight infections and you might end up with serious life-threatening illnesses.

History

We’ve come a long way since HIV first appeared and it was a totally different story then – people didn’t know anything about the infection. Most people called it AIDS then and if you got it, it usually meant death.

Thankfully, things are much different now. We know a lot more about HIV and how to manage it, which means people living with HIV can live longer, healthier lives. HIV is no longer the ‘death sentence’ it once was.

However, just because things have changed it does not mean we don’t need to worry about HIV. It still remains incurable, and is ultimately a life long chronic infection.

With as many as 1 in 5 gay and bisexual men living with HIV in major cities such as Brighton, London or Manchester, it is likely that many of us are living with HIV, or know of someone who is (whether we know it or not).

Gay men are disproportionately affected by HIV and there has been a significant increase in infection rates amongst young men over the last decade. Whatever your age or HIV status, the reality is that HIV is part of our community and can affect every part of our lives – our health, our families, our friends, our sex, and our relationships. HIV has and will continue to change our lives.

Whether HIV affects us directly or indirectly, lets acknowledge it.

Transmission & Symptoms

Transmission is when a HIV negative person is exposed to HIV and is infected with the virus, becoming HIV positive.

HIV exposure is when HIV infected bodily fluids come into contact with a HIV negative person’s blood stream.

Not every case of exposure will result in the transmission of HIV. In order for HIV transmission to occur there needs to be direct prolonged exposure or contact with bodily fluid(s) of an infected person.

HIV transmission through bodily fluids

HIV can be spread through exposure and contact with bodily fluids from an infected person. These bodily fluids include:

  • Anal mucus
  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Precum
  • Vaginal fluid

Also, fluids such as tears, saliva, sweat and urine do not contain sufficient quantities of the virus to cause transmission.

How HIV can enter the body

  • Directly into the bloodstream e.g. Through damaged skin, injecting equipment, etc.
  • Absorption through mucous membranes (found in the anus, throat and foreskin / head of penis)

If you remove one of the factors, transmission cannot take place. Remember, condoms are the most effective way of removing the route of the virus into the body.

Other factors that increase the risk of HIV transmission

  • Having another Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) - If sexually active it is a good idea to go for regular sexual health check ups.
  • Use of recreational drugs - People can lose their inhibitions when taking drugs and this may lead to people taking more risks when having sex. Certain substances such as poppers can facilitate longer and rougher sex, and could increase the opportunity for HIV to get into your bloodstream.
  • The first three months after infection - When a person first becomes infected with HIV, their viral load is higher than at any other time. The higher a person’s viral load, the more likely it is that HIV transmission could occur.
  • Using needles or syringes - If someone with HIV has already used them, there is a risk of transmission. Always use clean needles and syringes.
  • Sharing sex toys - Using a new condom and washing sex toys before using on a different person will reduce the risk.
  • Fisting - Any sexual activity which can lead to cuts in the lining of the arse can increase the risk of transmission. Plenty of water based lube should be used, and for added protection gloves can be worn.
  • Unprotected oral sex - Although small, there is a risk of getting HIV through unprotected oral sex, especially if you have bleeding gums or sores in your mouth.
  • Unprotected vaginal sex - Significantly increases the risk of HIV transmission.

Symptoms

A lot of people do not have any symptoms when they become infected with HIV. Other people may have a flu like illness, aching muscles or joints, develop a rash, have swollen glands or have night sweats. However, we can get these symptoms without having HIV.

The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to go for a test.

Getting a HIV test

We all put things off, and making the decision that now’s the time to get tested for HIV is a very individual one.

But knowing what your status is, will probably take away some of that stress and anxiety, and could potentially improve your long term health. Whether the test turns out to be positive or negative, knowing your status means you can look ahead and plan for the future.

However, if you decide not to go ahead with a HIV test, getting yourself armed with all the up to date information about HIV and safer sex will certainly put you at an advantage, than just brushing the subject aside.

Advantages of early diagnoses

There are many reasons why you may decide not to have a HIV test. Some people choose to put off having a HIV test even if they are worried and are therefore diagnosed late – sometimes this can be years after initially becoming HIV positive.

The advantages of early diagnosis are:

  • You can monitor your health effectively.
  • You can plan for the future.
  • You can start treatment when required, reducing damage to your body.

Late diagnosis is a serious problem in relation to health complications and HIV related deaths, and therefore, the earlier you are diagnosed the more likely you are to be able to manage the infection and lead a healthier life.

Unfortunately, nearly half of gay men that attend a sexual health clinic leave without being tested for HIV.

This means that many people who are HIV positive are completely unaware of their status. The test itself is a blood test that looks for antibodies rather than the virus itself. They are available from sexual health clinics, and if the test is performed here the results are completely confidential.

It is important to remember that the antibodies can take up to twelve weeks after infection to show, so if you have knowingly put yourself at risk you would need to wait for this ‘window period’ to pass before going for a test. An earlier test may not give a conclusive result. If the test finds these antibodies then you are said to be HIV positive, similarly if no antibodies are found then you are HIV negative.

Some GUM clinics will also recommend that you talk to a health adviser before taking the test, and they will also talk to you when you get your results.