What is HIV?

HIV is the name of a virus and the sickness it causes.

H = human – people get it

I = immunodeficiency – it attacks your immune system

V = virus – a bug that makes you sick

How do I get HIV?

You don’t know by looking at someone if they have HIV. People who have it often feel healthy and well.

HIV lives in blood, sexual fluids and breastmilk. You catch HIV if any of these get in to your bloodstream. The common ways to get HIV are from:

  • not using condoms during sex
  • sharing needles, syringes or spoons to inject drugs
  • unsterile body piercing and tattooing or ceremony
  • breastmilk
  • direct blood-to-blood contact e.g. blood transfusions and organ transplants in countries that do not test it for HIV. Blood transfusions and organ transplants in Australia are safe when all rules are followed.

You cannot get HIV by:

  • hugging
  • coughing or sneezing
  • sharing food or drink
  • eating food made by someone with HIV
  • blood transfusions and other medical procedures in Australia
  • using the same toilet or shower as a person with HIV
  • insect or animal bites
  • daily contact with people with HIV
  • swimming pools or gyms

What does HIV do to the body?

HIV attacks your immune system. Your immune system fights off infections and protects you from getting sick. HIV makes the immune system weak and it cannot protect you. If you do not have HIV medicine, you can get very sick.

Are HIV and AIDS the same thing?


HIV is a virus that kills immune cells in the body.

AIDS is not a virus.

AIDS is the rare diseases or illnesses that attack the body when your immune system is very weak. This only happens after HIV kills most of your immune cells. This can take many years.

AIDS is rare in Australia because medicines can prevent it.

Having HIV does not mean you will die from AIDS in Australia.

How do I know if I have HIV?

The only way to know if you have HIV is to have blood test.

  • if the test is ‘negative’, you do not have HIV
  • if the test is ‘positive’, you have HIV


Many people do not know they have HIV because they feel well. But when you first get HIV you might have:

  • a headache
  • a fever
  • tiredness
  • swollen glands
  • sore throat
  • a rash
  • muscle and joint pain
  • ulcers in the mouth
  • ulcers on the genitals
  • night sweats
  • diarrhoea


But these could be caused by the flu, a bad cold or another illness. If you think you may have got HIV you must see a doctor and ask for a test.

What do I do if I am HIV positive?

The first thing to do is talk to a doctor. They can also arrange for you to talk to someone else like a counsellor if you want.

The doctor will give you HIV medicines. These medicines will let you live a long, healthy life.

Can HIV be treated or cured?

HIV cannot be cured but medicines can treat it.

Medicine reduces the amount of virus in the blood to such a low amount, it can’t be seen even under a microscope. We call this ‘undetectable viral load’ and it means you won’t get sick from HIV and will have a normal lifespan. If you keep taking the medicine properly, it also means you will not give HIV to someone else.

How can I protect myself from getting HIV?

  • get tested and find out if you or your sexual partner has HIV: if you have more than one partner (or your partner has sex with other people), get tested regularly. The risk of getting HIV is higher the more sexual partners you have.
  • use condoms
  • get tested and treated for sexually transmissible infections (STIs). Having an STI increases your risk of getting HIV or giving it to other people. Ask your partners to get tested and treated for STIs too.
  • ask your doctor about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).  PrEP is medicine to stop you getting HIV. It is for people who don’t have HIV but have a high risk of getting it.

‘High risk’ means:

    • people whose partner has HIV
    • people who have more than one sex partner
    • a man that has sex with other men
    • people who don’t use condoms every time
    • people who share needles, syringes, water and spoons to inject drugs
  • use only sterile (clean) drug injecting equipment and water: never share your equipment with others. HIV can be passed from person to person in even blood drops too small to see in an injecting needle.
  • tattooing and body piercing: only use a licensed studio where needles and other equipment are properly cleaned or thrown away after they have been used. Always make sure they use new ink for you.
  • Blood transfusions and other medical procedures: in Australia all blood, blood products and organs are tested and are safe. But blood transfusions, blood products and organs might not be safe in other countries.

How can I make sure I don’t give HIV to someone else?

  • talk to your doctor about taking HIV medicine: HIV medicine makes the amount of virus in the blood very low. When the amount of virus is very low, you cannot give HIV to another person. This is called Treatment as Prevention (TasP).
  • get tested regularly: even if you take HIV medicine, you should still get tested regularly. There are different types of HIV virus and it is possible to have more than one type of HIV at the same time. The medicine may need to be changed if this happens.
  • get tested for STIs: HIV medicine does not stop you from getting STIs. HIV is easier to pass on (or get) if you have an STI. Get tested for STIs regularly and get treated if the test result is ‘positive’. Your sex partner(s) should be tested and treated too.
  • use condoms: use a condom every time you have sex
  • don’t share needles, syringes, spoons to inject drugs
  • breastmilk: If you are taking HIV medicine and you want to breastfeed your baby, talk to you HIV doctor.

Do I have to tell anyone if I have HIV?

By law you must tell:

  • your sex partner or partners. In some states in Australia, you must tell your sex partner before you have sex with them. Each State is different so check before you travel there.
  • the Australian Defence Force. You cannot join if you have HIV.
  • if you are a pilot
  • if you buy some kinds of insurance like health or travel insurance
  • if you want to give blood or organs like a kidney. You cannot give blood or organs if you have HIV.

You do not have to tell your:

  • boss
  • work mates
  • room mates
  • family
  • landlord
  • teacher
  • classmates
  • friends

People you should tell are:

  • your doctor so they can help you with testing and medicines
  • counsellors or other people who are part of your HIV care so they can help you

Where can I get help and advice?

There are many HIV community groups in Australia that can give you advice and help you.


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