HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that damages your immune system so your body becomes less effective at fighting off infection and other diseases. Once you get HIV, you cannot get rid of it. Fortunately, there are antiretroviral treatments which can minimise the amount of HIV in your body and limit damage to your immune system — keeping you in good health. These treatments can also greatly decrease the chances of passing HIV on to others during sex. Research for a cure is continuing but is expected to take many more years.
If you don’t take HIV antiretroviral treatments, your immune system can become severely damaged so that you develop serious “opportunistic infections” and diseases that make you feel very ill and can be fatal. A person at this stage is described as having AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
As more people are diagnosed early in their illness and take modern, effective treatments, people rarely progress to having AIDS in Australia any more. Even people who are diagnosed late with an opportunistic infection or AIDS-related cancer are generally expected to recover from such illnesses if they are treated effectively.
HIV antiretroviral treatments have dramatically changed the experiences of people living with HIV. A recently diagnosed person who is in the early stages of HIV infection and commences treatment shortly after diagnoses will usually have a life expectancy similar to their HIV-negative peers. However, every person is different so your experience of living with HIV will be based on the interaction of factors including:
It is important that you (and your doctor) regularly monitor your HIV to maximise your current and long-term health. For more information see Monitoring HIV.
Sex without a condom and sharing needles or syringes are the most common means of HIV transmission. Having anal sex without a condom is generally riskier than having vaginal sex without a condom. Oral sex has a very low risk of HIV transmission unless a person has cuts or sores in their mouth. Risk of transmission from a man to a woman during oral sex also increases if the woman has cuts or sores in her mouth and her male HIV-positive partner ejaculates. Risk of HIV transmission through sex increases if either partner has a sexually transmissible infection (STI).
There are a number of strategies you can use to prevent HIV transmission through sex, the most effective being using (male or female) condoms. For more information see Safe Sex. HIV cannot be transmitted if each person uses a clean needle and syringe to inject drugs.
HIV can also be passed from mother to child through pregnancy, at delivery or through breastfeeding but there are a range of interventions to prevent transmission. Mother-to-child transmission in Australia is rare. When it has occurred, it has usually been because the mother was not diagnosed during pregnancy so interventions were not applied (For more information see Having Children).