HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus attacks the immune system, the body’s defence against infection and disease. This means that someone with HIV has a higher risk of getting a serious infection or disease, such as cancer.


Is HIV different from AIDS?

AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome and refers to the late stages of HIV. The term AIDS is no longer widely used, and specialists prefer to call it advanced or late-stage HIV infection.


How do people get HIV?

HIV is spread through bodily fluids, such as semen or blood. It is most commonly passed on during unprotected sex, including oral and anal sex. It can also be passed on through sharing sex toys. You cannot get HIV from saliva (kissing) or from urine (e.g. from toilet seats).There’s not enough HIV to infect people in tears, sweat, saliva (spit) or faeces.


How is HIV passed on during sex?

HIV is a virus found in an infected person’s body fluids. Only in the following fluids is there enough HIV to infect someone:


  • vaginal fluid
  • breast milk
  • blood (also anal mucus, the lining covering the inside of the rectum).


  • semen
  • ‘pre-cum’ (the clear liquid that comes from a man’s penis when he is sexually excited)
  • blood (also anal mucus, the lining covering the inside of the rectum).


If any of these fluids get from the body of someone with HIV into the body of a person who doesn’t have HIV, that person can also become infected.


Who gets HIV?

Anyone can get HIV if they have unprotected sex. People who are at higher risk of catching HIV include:

  • men who have had unprotected sex with men
  • women who have had unprotected sex with men who have sex with men
  • people who have lived in or travelled extensively in Africa
  • people who have had unprotected sex with a person who has lived in or travelled in Africa
  • people who inject illegal drugs
  • people who have had unprotected sex with somebody who has injected illegal drugs
  • people who have caught another sexually transmitted infection
  • people who have received a blood transfusion while in Africa, eastern Europe, the countries of the former Soviet Union, Asia or central and southern America


How can I avoid HIV?

Using a condom during sex is the best way to avoid getting HIV, as well as other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Don’t use an oil-based lubricant as it can damage the condom, making it more likely to split. Use a water-based lubricant, such as KY Jelly, instead. If you think you have been put at risk of HIV,  for example if a condom breaks during sex with a HIV positive partner, see PEP section at the bottom of this page.

Using a condom during sex is the best way to avoid getting HIV, as well as other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).  See our Condoms page.


How can I get tested for HIV?

A simple blood test can determine whether you have HIV. It can take up to three months after infection to detect the virus, so you may need to have another test to be sure. There are various places you can get tested, including your GP surgery or a GUM (genitourinary medicine) clinic. You can get a test at the Nordhaven Clinic.


When should I get a test?

If you’re a gay man and you’ve had unprotected sex, it’s important that you have a test. The Health Protection Agency recommends annual HIV testing for gay men who change sexual partners.
Anyone can request a HIV test. Your doctor can discuss your risk with you.


What will happen if the test result is positive?

If your test is positive, you’ll be referred to an HIV clinic. The nearest clinic is in Aberdeen. While there's no cure for HIV, there are medications that can slow its progression and prolong life.


How would I know if I caught HIV?

The only sure way to know is to have a test. Many people experience some symptoms shortly after infection with HIV. Sero-conversion illness (SCI) occurs around two to six weeks after a person has been infected. The main symptoms of sero-conversion illness are a sore throat, fever, body aches and a rash. Other common symptoms include mouth ulcers, joint pain, loss of appetite, weight loss, muscle pain and feeling overly tired or sick. Some people experience severe symptoms and some people experience very mild symptoms.

These symptoms are only linked to infection with HIV if you have put yourself at risk (such as having sex without a condom) in the last six weeks. Because these symptoms are common to other illnesses, many people do not realise that they are a sign that they have become infected with HIV.

If you have two or more of these symptoms, and have had unsafe sex in the last six weeks, it is worth visiting your doctor or the Nordhaven Clinic to discuss having an HIV test.

If you haven’t had sex which puts you at risk of infection then these symptoms do not indicate that you have been infected with HIV. Even if you have had recent risky sex, it does not necessarily mean that those flu-like symptoms are sero-conversion illness. It could be the flu.


What are the symptoms of long-standing infection?

After the first stages of HIV infection, it can be many years before you experience any other symptoms or ill health. However, some people do develop medical conditions as HIV wears down the immune system.

Some people notice signs of the effects of HIV infection on their immune system including swollen lymph nodes (small lumps) in the neck, armpit or groin, or fever/night sweats.

HIV can also have a profound effect on the digestive system, so in some cases people experience stomach upsets and diarrhoea more than they used to.

Symptoms associated with breathing (shortness of breath or coughs) usually occur later in the course of the HIV disease and can be a sign of bacterial pneumonia, which is common in untreated HIV infection.

Because your immune system is weakened, you may also be more prone to other viruses, fungi or bacteria which can cause rashes on the skin and sores in the mouth.


I think I might have put myself at risk of HIV, is there anything I can do?

PEP is a treatment to stop a person becoming infected with HIV after it’s got into their body.

It is a course of tablets lasting 1 month. It makes it a lot less likely for HIV infection to occur, but doesn’t work every time.

It might be used if you have had unprotected sex, or a condom has broken, and you are at high risk of contracting HIV. You would be considered higher risk if your partner has HIV, or is in a higher risk group such as a sex worker or IV drug user.


How soon should I take it?

The quicker you start PEP, the more likely it is to work. Ideally it should be started within 24 hours, but can be used up to 72 hours after unsafe sex.


Where can I get PEP?

PEP is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at the A&E department at the Balfour Hospital in Kirkwall - (01856) 888 000

The doctor will assess your risk of contracting HIV. If the risk is significant you will be offered a starter pack. They will arrange for you to be seen by a HIV specialist to complete the course. PEP can cause unpleasant side-effects so it is not given to people at low risk of HIV.

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