What is HIV?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus.

This particular virus was identified in the 1980s and belongs to a group of viruses called ‘retroviruses’.

HIV attacks the immune system, and gradually causes damage. This can mean that, without treatment and care, a person with HIV is at risk of developing serious infections and cancers that a healthy immune system would fight off.

Current treatment for HIV works by reducing the amount of HIV in the body so the immune system can work normally. This doesn’t get rid of HIV completely, but with the right treatment and care, someone with HIV can expect to live a long and healthy life.

HIV is present in blood, genital fluids (semen, vaginal fluids and moisture in the rectum) and breast milk.

The main ways HIV can be passed on to someone else are:

  • during unprotected anal, vaginal and oral sex,
  • by sharing injecting equipment, and
  • from a mother to her baby during pregnancy, birth or through breastfeeding.

But there are ways of preventing HIV infection in all of these situations.

A test can tell if you have HIV. If you do, this is described as being HIV positive.

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