Human immunodeficiency virus infection - including symptoms, treatment and prevention
Without treatment, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection will usually result in acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). However, HIV antiretroviral therapies introduced in the mid-1990s, which are available to all Australians living with HIV, have resulted in the virtual elimination of AIDS in Australia.
With treatment, people living with HIV in Australia can live a long and healthy life without the risk of transmitting HIV to their sexual partners. HIV in Australia is now considered a chronic manageable condition. Whilst a vaccine or cure is yet to be found for HIV, most people living with HIV in Australia can achieve an undetectable viral load and long-term suppression of symptoms by taking effective treatment.
Human immunodeficiency virus is a notifiable condition1
How HIV is spread
HIV infection occurs when certain body fluids (blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk) containing the virus come into contact with another person’s tissues beneath the skin (for example, through needle puncture or broken skin), or mucous membranes (the thin moist lining of many parts of the body such as the nose, mouth, throat and genitals).
In Australia, most infections now result from unprotected sex (anal or vaginal intercourse without a condom) and/or the sharing of injecting equipment.
Mother-to-baby transmission during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding is now rare in Australia and is only a risk where the mother has untreated HIV infection.
Routine social or community contact with a person living with HIV carries no risk of infection. There is no evidence of the spread of HIV through social contact in schools, at home or in the
- air or water
- swimming pools or toilets
- sharing of plates, cups or cutlery
- sneezing or spitting.
In addition, there is no evidence HIV can be spread by mosquitoes or other biting insects.
In Australia, receiving blood, blood products or an organ transplant is not a risk for HIV infection as screening for HIV occurs.
Signs and symptoms
A few weeks after infection with HIV, the infected person may develop a flu-like illness (seroconversion illness) consisting of:
- muscle aches
- low-grade fever
- sometimes a rash
- swelling of the lymph glands may also occur.
This flu-like illness may be so mild it goes unnoticed or, in some people, it may be quite severe and last for a few weeks before there is a return to seemingly normal health. Either way, this illness at the beginning of the infection is so similar to many other viral infections that the diagnosis of HIV infection may not be made at this time.
Longer term, untreated HIV infection
The length of time that a person with untreated HIV infection may live without symptoms varies widely, but
When symptoms develop in untreated HIV, they may not be specific and can include:
- chronic loss of appetite
- weight loss
Untreated HIV destroys certain cells within the immune system (CD4+ or helper T cells) from the time of infection onwards, causing more and more damage. AIDS occurs when the damage to the immune system is so great the body can no longer stop some infections or cancers it normally fights successfully. Infections not usually seen in healthy people (opportunistic infections) and certain unusual tumours such as Kaposi’s sarcoma may occur.
Women with untreated HIV infection are at increased risk of developing cervical cancer and both men and women are at increased risk of anal cancer. Untreated HIV can also cause infection in the brain, which can lead to nervous system disorders or dementia in some people with HIV infection.
Diagnosis of HIV infection is made using blood tests. A positive blood test indicates the development of antibodies to HIV and therefore the presence of the virus. Antibodies to HIV usually develop within a few weeks to three months. Even though the blood test for antibodies may not be positive during the early stage of infection, the virus will be present in certain body fluids (blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk), making the person infectious to other people. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests in a pathology laboratory can be used for the early detection of HIV genetic material in the blood.
Blood tests to diagnose HIV infection can be ordered by your general practitioner or conducted at a sexual health clinic such as :
(time between becoming infected and developing symptoms)
While illness may not occur for months or years after becoming infected with HIV, without treatment, most adults will develop
(time during which an infected person can infect others)
Once a person has been infected with HIV they remain infected for life and may be able to transmit the virus to others. The risk of transmitting the infection to another person is dependent on the level of virus (viral load) in the body fluids (blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk) of the infected person.
The risk of transmitting the virus to others is higher when the viral load is higher, in particular, in early infection (when a person may not be aware they have HIV) and late in untreated infection (when the immune system is failing). Research demonstrates that having a consistently low (undetectable) viral load dramatically reduces infectiousness and that together with consistent condom use and/or safe injecting practices, lowers the risk of transmission to almost zero. However, certain factors, including poor treatment adherence or the presence of other sexually transmitted infections (STI) may increase the risk of transmission.
Although there is no cure for, or vaccine against, HIV infection, significant advances in HIV treatment have been made over recent years that are known to slow or even halt the disease progression that would otherwise have led to AIDS. This means HIV is no longer a terminal illness and is now considered a chronic manageable health condition.
Multiple treatment options are available for people living with HIV. Treatments vary from person to person depending on disease progression, drug resistance and other health conditions. For most people, treatment is as simple as taking a single pill
Whilst HIV treatment outcomes over a whole lifetime are not yet known, the majority of people on effective HIV treatment in countries like Australia will achieve long-term suppression of symptoms and an undetectable viral load, meaning they can live a long and healthy life without the risk of transmitting HIV to their sexual partners.
Regular measurement of the viral load and the levels of CD4+ cells
When HIV infection is advanced, either through treatment failure or in untreated infection, and has caused immune system destruction, secondary infections (opportunistic infections) can occur. Using other antiviral drugs and antibiotics to prevent secondary infection may prevent severe illness and premature (early) death.
Exclusion from childcare, preschool, school and work is not necessary. Children living with HIV may be advised to stay away from school during outbreaks of infectious disease (for example, chickenpox) to prevent
Health Care Workers living with HIV must comply with the requirements of their professional boards.
HIV infection can be prevented by:
- Using condoms and
water basedlubricants for penetrative sex. These reduce the risk of getting HIV, as well as other STIs. Having anySTI increases the risk of getting an HIV infection.
- The effective use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – see below
- Utilising treatment as prevention (TasP). When people with HIV effectively adhere to their treatment regime their viral load is suppressed to undetectable, and therefore
- Not sharing any injecting equipment (including needles, syringes, filters, spoons, swabs, tourniquets).
- Safely disposing of
foundor used needles and syringes in a sharp safe, or other sealable and puncture-proof container.
- Always using standard precautions when handling blood and other body fluids. This will minimise and generally eliminate the risk of transmission of HIV.
- Covering any open sores, cuts or abrasions with waterproof dressings.
- Understanding the risk of body tattooing or any body piercing. The risk of being infected with HIV through these practices is lower than for hepatitis B or hepatitis C, but there is still a risk if there is
useof unsterile equipment or re-used dyes.
In Australia, all donated blood and body organs are screened for HIV infection.
Post-exposure Prophylaxis for HIV
PEP needs to begin as soon as possible, within 72 hours after exposure, to be effective.
For more information, see: HIV post exposure prophylaxis.
Prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV
The administration of HIV treatment to HIV-positive women during pregnancy, labour and after delivery, as well as to the newborn baby, reduces the risk of mother-to-baby transmission of HIV.
- Handling blood and other body substances
- Avoiding sexually transmitted infections
- Clean Needle Program
- Adelaide Sexual Health Centre
- SHINE SA
SAMESH(SA Mobilisation and Empowerment for Sexual Health)
peer runorganisation for sex workers in SA)
- Royal District Nursing Service SA
- Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO)
- National Association of People with HIV Australia (NAPWHA)
- U = U (undetectable = untransmittable) international campaign
1 – In South