Module 4 - What is HIV?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks cells that help the body fight infection, making a person more vulnerable to other infections and diseases.

It is spread by contact with certain bodily fluids of a person with HIV, most commonly during unprotected sex (sex without a condom or HIV medicine to prevent or treat HIV), or through sharing injecting equipment.

HIV can affect anyone regardless of sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, age, or where they live.

If left untreated, HIV can lead to the disease AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

The human body can’t get rid of HIV and no effective HIV cure exists. So, once someone has HIV, they have it for life. However, effective treatment with HIV medicine is available which reduces the prevalence of the virus within the body to an undetectable level.

What it means to have HIV

Common ways to contract HIV

People can only get HIV by coming into direct contact with certain body fluids from a person with HIV who has a detectable amount of HIV in their blood (also called the viral load).

These fluids include:

  • Blood
  • Semen (cum) and pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum)
  • Rectal fluids
  • Vaginal fluids
  • Breast milk.


For transmission to occur, the HIV in these fluids must get into the bloodstream of an HIV-negative person through a mucous membrane (found in the rectum, vagina, mouth, or tip of the penis), through open cuts or sores, or by direct injection (from a needle or syringe).

People with HIV who take HIV medicine as prescribed and get and keep an undetectable viral load can live long and healthy lives and will not transmit HIV to their HIV-negative partners through sex.

Common myths about HIV

HIV can not be transmitted through:

  • Air or water
  • Mosquitoes, ticks, or other insects
  • Saliva, tears, sweat, feces, or urine that is not mixed with the blood of a person with HIV
  • Shaking hands; hugging; sharing toilets; sharing dishes, silverware, or drinking glasses; or engaging in closed-mouth or “social” kissing with a person with HIV
  • Drinking fountains
  • Other sexual activities that don’t involve the exchange of body fluids (for example, touching)
  • Donating blood.


HIV can not be transmitted through healthy, unbroken skin.

HIV Symptoms

There are several symptoms of HIV. Not everyone will have the same symptoms. It depends on the person and what stage of the disease they are in.

The most common symptoms of HIV are flu-like symptoms. These symptoms may last for a few days or several weeks.

Some people may not feel sick during acute HIV infection. Symptoms can also vary by the stage of HIV.

HIV Stages

Stage 1: Acute HIV Infection

Within 2 to 4 weeks after infection with HIV, about two-thirds of people will have a flu-like illness. This is the body’s natural response to HIV infection.


Stage 2: Chronic HIV Infection

In this stage, the virus still multiplies, but at very low levels. People in this stage may not feel sick or have any symptoms.

Without HIV treatment, people can stay in this stage for 10 or 15 years, but some move through this stage faster.

If people take HIV medicine exactly as prescribed and get and keep an undetectable viral load, they can live long and healthy lives and will not transmit HIV to others.

But if a persons viral load is detectable, they can transmit HIV during this stage, even when you have no symptoms. It’s important they see their GP regularly to get your viral load checked.

Stage 3: AIDS

If a person has HIV and they are not on HIV treatment, eventually the virus will weaken their body’s immune system and they will progress to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

This is the late stage of HIV infection.

Symptoms of AIDS can include:

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Recurring fever or profuse night sweats
  • Extreme and unexplained tiredness
  • Prolonged swelling of the lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck
  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than a week
  • Sores of the mouth, anus, or genitals
  • Pneumonia
  • Red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
  • Memory loss, depression, and other neurologic disorders

Blood tests to diagnose HIV

The only way to know someone’s HIV status is through testing. Testing for HIV is important because it enables the individual to know their status, seek treatment and support if necessary and take steps to prevent onward transmission.

Being tested regularly for HIV is simple, quick and made convenient with multiple testing sites in Tasmania. Testing is also available through GPs.


Ways to stay safe
  • Using condoms correctly, every time you have sex
  • Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), medicine people at risk for HIV take to prevent getting HIV from sex or injection drug use
  • Antiretroviral Therapy (ART), treatment were people with HIV take HIV medicine as prescribed to maintain an undetectable viral load, a level of HIV in the blood so low that it can’t be detected in a standard blood test.

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