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Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a bloodborne viral infection that damages the cells in your immune system and weakens your ability to fight everyday infections and diseases. When a person’s immune system has been severely damaged by HIV it can lead to the development of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) which results in a weekend immune system long-term which puts the individual at a higher risk of several life-threatening infections and illnesses.

How is HIV transmitted

HIV is found and passed on through body fluids of an infected person like semen, vaginal and anal fluids, blood, sharing needles, syringes or other injecting equipment, or from mother to her baby during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding.

However, it is mainly passed through having unprotected anal or vaginal sex (not using condoms) with someone with HIV, who isn't taking HIV treatment.

HIV Symptoms

Many people with HIV may not know they are infected as they may not show any signs or symptoms. However, following HIV infection most people experience short flu-like illness for 2 to 6 weeks which include: raised temperature (fever), sore throat, body rash, swollen glands, tiredness. After the disappearance of the initial symptoms, individuals may not experience any symptoms for many years even though the virus continues to damage their immune system. This could take up to ten years, during which time the person will appear and feel healthy.

Once the body's ability to fight off the infection has been severely damaged, the person may start to develop the following symptoms:

  • weight loss
  • chronic diarrhoea
  • nights sweats
  • skin problems
  • recurrent infections
  • serious life-threatening illnesses

Therefore, earlier detection of HIV through testing, will speed up the diagnosis and treatment to prevent poor health outcomes.

Testing for HIV

Anyone who thinks that they might have been exposed to HIV should seek medical advice. Several places including GP surgery and sexual health services can offer testing and support for HIV.

Across Northamptonshire HIV testing can be accessed through the Northamptonshire Integrated Sexual Health Service (NHFT).

During pregnancy, women are offered screening for HIV as part of routine antenatal screening. For more information see HIV screening in pregnancy.


HIV is a disease which is preventable and there are several steps that can be taken to avoid or reduce the risk of catching HIV and stop further transmission, these include:

  • Practising safe sex by using condoms consistently and correctly. Condoms are available free of charge for those aged 16-24 years old with in Northamptonshire, see Integrated Sexual Health Service for further details
  • Treatment with antiretrovirals lowers the levels of the virus within the blood stream to become undetectable, this reduces the likelihood of passing on the virus to their sexual partners
  • Avoid sharing needles, syringes, and injecting equipment. Most pharmacies offer needle exchange programmes, where used needles are exchanged for clean ones. The nearest services can be found using the needle and syringe service finder
  • HIV negative individuals who are at high-risk of catching HIV may be able to take medicines to reduce the risk of getting HIV, see Integrated Sexual Health Service for further details
  • Pregnant women will be screened for HIV, if they are HIV positive, they may be offered antiretrovirals to prevent passing on the virus to their babies. However, this will be discussed with each individual’s GP and Midwife.

Further information

Last updated 05 December 2023