What is HIV?
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a retrovirus that attacks certain cells in your immune system. Over time HIV can progress to AIDS if not treated (this is now rare in Australia).
Your immune system protects you against bacteria, germs and viruses. When HIV decimates your immune system, it makes it harder for you to fight infections and disease.
How does someone get HIV?
The main fluids that can transmit HIV are:
- Vaginal fluids
- Breast milk.
Someone can get HIV if the fluids from someone with HIV enters their body. This may be through cuts, injections or through certain mucus membranes.
You can get HIV from:
- Having vaginal or anal sex without a condom
- Sharing needles and other injecting drug equipment
- Sharing body piercing or tattooing equipment
- Vertical transmission (pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding)
In Australia, blood transfusions and medical procedures are safe. It’s also safe to get tattoos and piercings at licenced venues. However, some countries don’t follow the same safety protocol so be care when travelling.
What are the symptoms of HIV?
HIV is known for its common lack of symptoms. People can live for years with HIV without ever noticing it.
Some people (about 1 in 6) may experience flu symptoms when they first get HIV. Tiredness, fever, night sweats, rashes and aches and pains are the most common symptoms. These are from the immune system trying to fight off HIV.
Most people will get no symptoms at all. Likewise, many people will get these symptoms from being sick but not having HIV.
It is important to test for HIV regularly to know for sure.
HIV is treated with medications called antiretrovirals (ARVs). They do not get rid of HIV, but they can reduce the level of HIV in the body and stop it from harming your immune system. Once the virus has been reduced to low enough levels, HIV cannot be passed on through sexual contact.
People with HIV on treatment can live a long, happy and healthy life. Treating treatment as soon as possible is better for your health.
Find out more at our HIV and treatment page
How can I find out if I have HIV?
The only way to know if you have HIV is to have an HIV test.
In WA, there are many ways you can get an HIV test. You can:
- Go to a sexual health clinic
- Ask your doctor (GP) for a test
- Do an HIV self test at home
It is easy and always confidential. It is often free at many clinics. If you have a Medicare card, your HIV test will be covered.
At some clinics, you don’t need a Medicare Card, and you don’t need to give your real name if you don’t want to. You will need to give at least two ways of contacting you, in case the clinic needs to reach you about your result. This can be a mobile phone number, email address or mailing address.
Worried about getting tested?
It is normal to worry about getting an HIV test. The idea of getting a positive result can be scary, but testing is the only way you can know if you have HIV.
When people know that they have HIV, they can access HIV treatment and look after their health. They can also make sure they don’t pass it on to others.
If you’re worried about confidentiality, talk with your doctor or a sexual health clinic. All health information that your doctor has about you must be kept private and protected. This is the law in Australia.
There are many different ways you can prevent getting HIV or passing it to others, including:
- Using condoms and lubricant
- Accessing treatment and having an undetectable viral load
- Taking Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP)
- Taking Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP)
- Using sterile injecting drug equipment
Frequently Asked Question about HIV
How does HIV affect the body?
HIV replicates in the body by inserting itself into a type of white blood cell called CD4 cells. It makes copies of itself inside the cell, killing it in the process. It then goes off to find more CD4 cells to replicate again and again and again.
Over time, if you are not on treatment, the number of CD4 cells in your body will become very low. This is when you can develop AIDS.
If your immune system gets too weak and you develop AIDS, you are at higher risk of getting severe infections which could lead to death.
With effective treatment, you are able to halt or reduce HIV’s ability to attack your immune system and impact its ability to replicate.
Are HIV and AIDS different?
HIV/AIDS is often written together, but they mean different things. HIV is a virus that damages your immune system. Without treatment, HIV can cause AIDS.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It happens when your immune system becomes damaged by HIV, and you can’t fight off infections. Many treatments are available. They fight HIV and lower the virus’s ability to damage the immune system. In Australia, almost everyone receives treatment for HIV and do not develop AIDS.
Where can I get tested?
Find a full list of HIV testing locations in Western Australia on our Testing page.
Who should get tested?
Anyone who thinks they may have HIV should get tested.
You should get tested if you:
- Have had more than one sexual partner and haven’t used a condom every time
- Are a man who has sex with other men
- Have a partner who has HIV
- Have a partner who has HIV, and want to have a baby
- Have had sex without a condom in a country where HIV is common
- Have ever injected drugs using needles or other equipment that has been used by other people
Have had tattoos, piercings, injections or medical procedures overseas and you are not sure that sterile equipment was used.
What sort of HIV tests are there?
There are several different ways to test for HIV. Some can be done earlier, and others can give you a faster result. Tests done in a sexual health clinic or GP will give you better access to information and support if you need it.
HIV Blood Test (HIV antigen and antibody test)
This is the type of test most people will get. You will have a blood sample taken. It will be sent to a laboratory for both the virus (antigen) and your body’s reaction to HIV (antibody).
If your test shows HIV, your doctor or clinic will repeat the test to check the result is accurate.
This test is free at doctors clinics that bulk-bill, and at sexual health clinics for most people. If your GP does not bulk bill, there may be costs you have to pay yourself.
Rapid HIV Test
The rapid HIV test screens for HIV antibodies. You will get a result in 20 minutes. The test involves a finger prick to draw blood that is dropped into the testing device.
The rapid HIV test is only available at M Clinic (a sexual health clinic for men who have sex with men, and costs $30)
HIV Self Test
A HIV self test kit lets you screen for HIV in your own home. It is ordered online (or purchased through M Clinic) and costs about $30. A small needle will collect a few drops of blood from your finger, which are put into a part of the kit. You get the result in 15 minutes, though you will need to see a doctor to repeat the test if it shows HIV.
Note: The Rapid HIV Test and HIV Self Test reacts to the presence of HIV antibodies. This means they only give accurate results for HIV exposures that happened three months before the test. If you have had an HIV exposure in the last 12 weeks, these tests will not be able to cover them.
If you get a positive HIV test, start treatment early. You will stay healthy and keep your immune system strong. Treatment will reduce the amount of the virus in your body and will stop you from passing HIV to sexual partners.
HIV terms you may hear
Adherence – When you take HIV treatment every day as your doctor has ordered
Antibody – Antibodies are made by the body to fight bacteria and viruses like HIV
ARV – Antiretroviral medications are medicines used to treat HIV
Bulk Billing – If a doctor bulk bills, your visit is free as Medicare pays the doctor. If your doctor does not bulk bill, you pay the doctor and claim some money back from Medicare
CD4 Cells – CD4 cells are a type of immune system cell that HIV attacks and kills over time. The less CD4 cells in your body, the more at risk you are to infection
Condoms – A thin latex sheath that fits on an erect penis to stop pregnancy and reduce the chance of passing on HIV and STIs
Confidentiality – Any information that a health care professional has about you is private. A health care provider can only repeat what you say with your permission or in very special circumstances.
Diagnosis – The conclusion a doctor may reach after examining, doing tests and talking with their patients
HIV Negative – Someone who does not have HIV
HIV Positive – Someone who has HIV
HIV Status – HIV status is about whether you are HIV positive or HIV negative
HIV Test – Blood test used to find HIV antibodies. Also called HIV Antibody Test
Infection – A germ in or on the body that makes you sick. Infections can be caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi or parasites
PEP – Post-exposure prophylaxis is treatment taken by an HIV negative person within 72 hours after a potential HIV risk to prevent HIV infection
PrEP – Pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP is when an HIV negative person takes HIV medications every day to protect them from HIV
Rapid HIV Test – A small drop of blood from your finger is used to test for HIV. A result is ready in 20 minutes
Section 100 (s100) Drugs – s100 Drugs are highly specialised medicines used to treat and prevent HIV. They can only be prescribed by doctors who have been specially trained
Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) – Infections spread through sexual contact. They are caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites
Seroconversion – The time it takes for HIV antibodies to be detectable in the blood after infection. This is sometimes called the ‘window period’
Side effect – A negative reaction to medication or treatment
Stigma – Negative beliefs, feelings and views that people have towards someone because of their gender, sexuality, race, colour, health problems or religious beliefs
Treatment as Prevention (TasP) – Involves taking HIV medication as ordered by your doctor to make your viral load undetectable
Transmission – The passing of a disease from one person to another Treatment Something that a person does so that they can stay healthy or get better. Treatments can involve taking medicine, complementary therapies and/ or changes in lifestyle
Undetectable viral load (UVL) – An undetectable viral load means that HIV is in very small amounts in your body. This is the main goal of HIV treatment because the immune system isn’t being attacked and a person cannot pass HIV to sexual partners
Viral load – Describes the amount of HIV in your blood. The higher the viral load, the higher the chance of passing on HIV, and the quicker HIV can weaken your immune system.
Virus – A germ that some antibiotics cannot treat. HIV and hepatitis B and C are viruses that cannot be treated by antibiotics. They can all be treated by antiviral medications. Window period See ‘seroconversion’