This section of the website is for UK healthcare professionals only. If you are not a healthcare professional, please click here.
This section of the website is for UK healthcare professionals only. If you are not a healthcare professional, please click here.

This section of the website is for members of the public. If you are a healthcare professional,visit the HCP section of the site. This website is not intended to replace the advice of a healthcare professional. You should consult your doctor or another suitably trained healthcare provider when considering what type of treatment is most appropriate for you.

What is HIV?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages the cells in the immune system which is our body’s natural defence against illness.1  The virus destroys a certain white blood cell in the immune system called a T-helper cell and makes copies of itself inside these cells. T-helper cells are also known as CD4 cells.1

As HIV damages more CD4 cells and generates more copies of itself, a person’s immune system begins to weaken. If HIV is left untreated, after time, the immune system can become so damaged that it cannot protect itself. However, the rate at which HIV progresses varies depending on age, general health and background.1

AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the name used to describe a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that happen when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus. While AIDS can't be transmitted from one person to another, the HIV virus can.2

With an early diagnosis and effective treatments, most people with HIV won't develop any AIDS-related illnesses and will live a near-normal lifespan.2

Signs and symptoms of HIV

Most people infected with HIV experience a short, flu-like illness that occurs 2-6 weeks after infection. The symptoms usually last 1-2 weeks and they're a sign that the immune system is putting up a fight against the virus. It's estimated up to 80% of people who are infected with HIV experience this flu-like illness. The most common symptoms are raised temperature (fever), sore throat and body rash. Other symptoms can include tiredness, joint pain, muscle pain and swollen glands.3

After the initial symptoms disappear, HIV may not cause any further symptoms for many years and during this time people can feel and appear well. During this time, the virus continues to be active and causes progressive damage to the immune system. Once the immune system becomes severely damaged, symptoms can include: weight loss, chronic diarrhoea, night sweats, skin problems, recurrent infections and serious life-threatening illnesses.3

How is HIV treated?

There's currently no cure for HIV, but there are very effective drug treatments that enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life. These treatments are called antiretroviral medications, and they work by stopping the virus replicating in the body. This allows the immune system to repair itself and prevent further damage.4

Combinations of HIV treatments are used because HIV can quickly adapt and become resistant. Different combinations of HIV medicines work for different people, so treatments are individual to each person.4

The amount of HIV virus in the blood - viral load - is measured to see how well treatment is working. Once the virus can no longer be measured it's known as undetectable. Most people taking daily HIV treatment reach an undetectable viral load within 6 months of starting treatment.4

Further information about HIV

Visit NHS Choices:

Further information about HIV treatments

Visit NAM

Contact Information

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  1. Avert ‘What are HIV and AIDS?’ Available at:  (Last accessed November 2019)
  2. NHS Choices ‘HIV and AIDS Overview’ Available at:  (Last accessed: November 2019)
  3. NHS Choices ‘HIV and AIDS Symptoms’ Available at:  (Last accessed: November 2019)
  4. NHS Choices ‘HIV and AIDS Treatment’ Available at:  (Last accessed: November 2019)