About HIV

HIV is a virus that infects the body’s white blood cells and stops the immune system, which fights infection, from functioning properly. Here you can find out a little bit more about HIV.

How you get it​


The virus is present in blood and genital fluids. The main ways that it can be transmitted include:

  • condomless anal or vaginal sex

  • sharing injecting equipment

  • very rarely, through oral sex without a condom


Without treatment, over a period of years, the immune system will weaken, leaving you open to opportunistic infections that might lead to an AIDS diagnosis. Today in Scotland, this is extremely rare and, with early diagnosis and treatment, people with HIV can live long and healthy lives.


You cannot get HIV from: kissing, hugging, massage, any non-sexual physical contact, sharing cutlery, drinking from the same glass or sharing food, or from contact with surfaces such as toilet seats. Click here to find out more myths surrounding HIV.



HIV symptoms vary from person to person and, because many other common illnesses share these symptoms, the only way to be certain that you have HIV is to get tested.


Some people will have flu-like symptoms, often within a couple of weeks of becoming infected. Typical symptoms include sore throat, a fever and a blotchy rash at the same time. Other possible symptoms include fatigue, aching joints and muscles, headaches, swollen glands, nausea and diarrhoea.


While these may be the signs of a bad cold or flu, if you have been at risk, it’s best to get it checked out. The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested.


Have you been at risk?



The medications used to treat HIV are called anti-retrovirals and the earlier they are started, the better for your health. A person living with HIV and on treatment can expect to live a long, healthy life. Taken as prescribed, the medication helps reduce your viral load (amount of HIV in your blood) to the point where it is undetectable.

A person living with HIV, on treatment, and with an undetectable viral load, cannot pass HIV on to their sexual partners.


While there are side effects, as there are with any medication, in the majority of cases, the more severe impacts once associated with HIV medications are no longer a problem thanks to medical advances. Most people taking anti-retrovirals nowadays have no side effects, or very minor side effects that do not affect quality of life.


Nevertheless, patients must work closely with their consultant to find the right combination of medications for them, as everyone responds slightly differently to the treatments.



Condoms and lubricant are still the best way to protect yourself and your partner from sexually transmitted HIV. Using clean injecting equipment at all times protects you if you are injecting drugs.

Reduce the risk of a condom bursting by:

  • making sure it's properly unrolled

  • squeezing the air out of the 'teat' before putting it on

  • keeping your fingernails short and smooth

  • using lube suitable for use with condoms

  • never using oils, oil-based lubricants, or oily foodstuffs during sex


The risks from oral sex can be reduced if you:

  • always use a fresh condom

  • avoid oral sex if there are any signs of infection

  • avoid oral sex if the person giving it has any cuts or sores in their mouth


If you’ve had sex and think you may have been exposed to HIV, you can access treatment known as PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis) which vastly reduces your risk of infection. The sooner you can take PEP the more effective it is. Preferably this would be within the first 24 hours and not longer than 72 hours after exposure. You should be able to access PEP from sexual health clinics and Hospital Emergency Departments. You can also use PEP if you think you may have shared injecting equipment with someone who has HIV in the last 3 days.


You may have also heard about PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis). PrEP is a pill that can stop the person taking it from getting HIV. Unlike PEP it is taken before sex. It is extremely effective at preventing HIV when taken as directed, with few side effects. PrEP is now available on the NHS in Scotland from sexual health clinics to people who are at the greatest risk of HIV. PrEP is not available for those who inject drugs. Visit www.prep.scot for more information.

© 2019 Know Your Risk: Testing Week Scotland