HIV is a virus that damages the immune system. It is transmitted through body fluids. Treatments are available for HIV, but there is no vaccine and no cure. AIDS is a late stage of HIV infection.
Last updated: 01 May 2013

What are HIV and AIDS?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV damages the body's immune system, which makes it more difficult to fight off infections and some cancers.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The term AIDS was coined before its cause (HIV) was discovered and treatment was available. AIDS was defined to pick up certain conditions that resulted from HIV infection to help monitor the epidemic and is less relevant as a term now that effective tests and treatment are available.

What are the symptoms?

Most people have mild symptoms or no symptoms when they are first infected with HIV. Some people develop a flu-like illness with fever, sore throat, swollen glands or a rash a few weeks after being infected. These symptoms usually disappear without treatment after a few days. This is called the seroconversion illness. After the initial illness, people with HIV infection usually have no symptoms, despite the virus living in the body.

How is HIV spread?

HIV is in the blood, semen, vaginal fluid or breast milk of an infected person and can be transmitted:
  • during unprotected anal or vaginal sex
  • by sharing drug injecting equipment (contaminated needles, syringes and other injecting equipment and drug solutions)
  • by unsafe injections, tattoos and other procedures that involve unsterile cutting or piercing
  • to a baby during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding
HIV is not transmitted by kissing or cuddling, by day-to-day social contact such as shaking hands, by sharing cutlery, cups or glasses, by eating food prepared by someone with HIV, through toilet seats, or by mosquito or other insect bites.

Who is at risk?

In Australia, most people are infected with HIV are:
  • men who have sex with men
  • people from a country that has high rates of HIV (look for country facts at here)
  • people who inject drugs
  • people who had tattoos or other piercings overseas using unsterile equipment
  • sexual contacts of these people
If you have symptoms or have been having unsafe sex, it is important to have a sexual health check to find and treat any early infections and to prevent spread to other people.
People can be infected with several different sexually transmitted infections at the same time. If you’re HIV negative, having a sexually transmissible infection (STI) makes it easier to also pick up HIV infection. If you’re HIV positive, having another STI makes you more likely to pass on HIV to sexual partners.
HIV testing is recommended at least annually for gay men, other men who have sex with men, and injecting drug users, who are at higher risk of HIV. Sex workers should be tested for HIV as part of regular sexual health check-ups every 3-6 months.

How is HIV prevented?

• Use condoms for anal and vaginal sex
• Never share needles, syringes and other injecting equipment
• Anyone with an STI or risk factor for HIV should get tested.
• Antiretroviral treatment of an HIV infected mother prevents transmission to the baby during pregnancy, childbirth, or breast-feeding.
If you are waiting for the results of an HIV test, it is important to continue safe sex and safe injecting practices.
If you are HIV positive you should tell people who you know may have also been at risk. They may also have the infection and telling them allows them to be tested and treated so they don’t spread the infection to others. Your doctor can help you decide who may be at risk and help you to contact them either personally or anonymously.
If you are HIV positive, you must tell anyone you intend to have sex with about your HIV status (even when you use a condom). This is required by law in NSW.

Post Exposure Prophylaxis

If you think you have been very recently exposed to HIV, you may want to consider taking Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP). PEP is a combination of drugs taken for one month that can sometimes prevent HIV from taking hold after a person has been exposed to the virus. It is important to commence PEP as soon as possible after the exposure, and PEP must be started within 72 hours (3 days). PEP drugs often have side effects and they are not suitable for everyone. Safe sex (and safe injecting) is the best way to prevent HIV and other infections.
Find out about PEP by calling the PEP Information Line on 1800 737 669.

Safer injecting

If you inject drugs, do not share needles and syringes or other injecting equipment. Try to make sure the equipment you use is sterile. You can get sterile needles and syringes from your local needle and syringe program (NSP). These are free and confidential services. You can also get sterile needles and syringes from some pharmacies. Go for a regular check-up to find infections before complications develop and to prevent spread to others.

How is HIV diagnosed?

Your doctor or sexual health clinic can order a blood test for HIV. One type of test detects antibodies to the virus, while another type looks for the virus itself. It currently takes between 15-24 days before blood will show a positive test result after a new HIV infection, and may take longer. This means that if you have had a recent exposure you may require several blood tests over time to rule out a new infection. It’s important to discuss this with your doctor.

How is HIV treated?

By detecting HIV infection early, your immune system can be monitored closely and you can be started on treatments to prevent damage to your body’s immune system. Treatment also helps prevent passing the virus on to others, by reducing the amount of virus in the blood.

What is the public health response?

HIV is a notifiable diseases in NSW. This means that doctors and laboratory staff are legally required to provide some information about new cases to NSW Health. The information collected is confidential and does not include the names and addresses of people diagnosed with HIV. Public health staff use these data to better understand who is at risk of the disease and help plan activities to prevent new infections in the future.

Further information

The Sexual Health Infoline Freecall 1800 451 624
ACON or freecall 1800 063 060.
Multicultural HIV and Hepatitis Service (MHAHS), phone (02) 9515 1234 or freecall 1800 108 098 (outside Sydney).