What is HIV?

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a blood-borne virus that attacks the immune system. While there's no cure, the good news is HIV can be treated with medication that enable people to live long and healthy lives.

Without treatment, HIV can damage the immune system. This may cause acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) to develop. AIDS makes it hard for the body to fight even small infections and increases the risk of getting cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

How HIV is transmitted

HIV spreads when the pre-cum, semen, blood, vaginal fluid, anal fluid or breast milk of a person with HIV enters the body of a person who doesn't have HIV. This can happen:

  • having anal or vaginal sex (if the person isn't on treatment or PrEP)
  • sharing needles and other injecting equipment
  • during childbirth or breastfeeding.

HIV can't be transmitted through saliva, sweat, tears, mucous, vomit, pee or poo. You can't catch HIV from kissing, hugging, sharing eating utensils, shaking hands or any other everyday social contact.

There's no need to be scared of a person living with HIV.

People who take their treatment as prescribed to treat HIV may have extremely low levels of HIV in their bloodstream (undetectable viral load). Someone with an undetectable viral load can’t pass HIV onto others through sex. In short, undetectable equals untransmissible (U=U).

Symptoms of HIV

Some people may have flu-like symptoms within a month of getting the infection. Other people will have no symptoms at all until years after first getting it.

Even when you don't have symptoms, if not managed with treatment HIV can still harm your body and be passed onto other people.

Watch the video below to learn more about the symptoms and life cycle of HIV.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is transmitted from person to person through blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breastmilk. HIV can enter the body through the lining of the vagina, penis, or anus during sex without a condom, through sharing injecting equipment or through breastfeeding.

Once it is in the body, HIV travels through the blood and targets key elements of the immune system called T cells.

HIV particles search and find special receptors called CD4 receptors on the outside of the T cell. The virus then merges with the T cell and begins to insert its genetic material.

HIV genetic material, RNA, is converted to make a DNA copy of HIV RNA to be able to insert itself into the genetic material of the T cell.

The converted material is then able to insert itself into the genetic material of the T cell to make HIV provirus.

Now the virus uses the reproductive cycle of the T cell to make copies of its own genetic structure.

The new copies of the HIV RNA create new HIV virus particles that exit the cell and recommence the reproductive cycle in another cell.

The HIV reproductive cycle has seriously damaged the T cell, which will now die.

If a person living with HIV does not take treatment to prevent the ongoing destruction of the T cells and HIV replication, their immune system may eventually break down and they can develop Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, known as AIDS.

While there is no cure for HIV, treatment options have improved so much that people living with HIV can expect to live long, healthy lives. Daily HIV treatment can prevent further virus replication, keep the person well, and prevent onward transmission to others.  This treatment is sometimes called Anti-retroviral therapy or A-R-T.

There is also medication available called Post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, that may prevent infection after a recent exposure to HIV. HIV negative people can also take HIV medication before they are exposed to the virus to prevent HIV infection. This is called Pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP.

HIV and other STIs can be prevented by using condoms and water-based lubricant during sex, using sterile injecting equipment, having regular sexual health check ups and ensuring you or your health provider notify your sexual partners if you are diagnosed with an STI.

Preventing HIV

  • Use condoms with water-based lubricant during anal or vaginal sex
  • Take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a daily pill that stops HIV from establishing in the body
  • Get tested for STIs and HIV every 6 to 12 months – this is the only way to know if you have an infection
  • If you are living with HIV, maintain an undetectable viral load by taking your medication as prescribed.

If you're using needles and other equipment for injecting, make sure they're new and don’t share. Free, sterile injecting equipment is available through the Queensland Needle and Syringe Program.

If you think you've been exposed to HIV, you may still be able to stop the infection from becoming established in your body by taking post exposure prophylaxis (PEP). PEP must be started within 72 hours after being exposed to HIV, but is most effective when taken immediately.

Search for a PEP emergency treatment service provider on the Queensland Government website.

Testing for HIV

You need a specific HIV blood test to see if you have HIV.

If you’ve recently had unprotected anal or vaginal sex, or you think you may have been exposed to HIV through sharing needles or other injecting equipment, you should go to a health service as soon as possible to discuss testing.

It can take 2 to12 weeks after getting HIV before it can be detected in the blood through a blood test. This is called the 'window period'. Most tests in Australia can detect HIV antibodies within 2 to 4 weeks after exposure, with follow-up testing recommended if you are within the 12-week window period. During this time, always practice safe sex with condoms, don’t donate blood or share injecting equipment.

Screening tests like HIV point of care tests (also known as ‘rapid HIV tests’) are readily available. Read more about HIV point of care testing on the Queensland Government website.

You can get a free HIV self test kit from Queensland Positive People (QPP). The HIV self test kit uses a drop of blood from your fingertip and takes about 15 minutes to give you an accurate result. For more information and to order a self-test kit go to the QPP website.

Search for a HIV testing service in Queensland.

Treating HIV

Treatment isn't a cure for HIV, but it allows people living with HIV to be healthy and live to a normal life expectancy. Starting HIV treatment as early as possible is crucial for long term health.

HIV is treated with medicines called antiretroviral therapy (ART) that need to be taken as prescribed. They protect the immune system, prevent AIDS and lower the chances of spreading HIV to other people.

Find an HIV service provider in Queensland.

HIV treatment costs

HIV ARTs are free if you live in Queensland. You can find out more about treatment and support on the Queensland Positive People website or Queensland Government website.

In most other states and territories, HIV ARTs are subsidised through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). You'll need a Medicare card to get cheaper medicines under the PBS. Similar to Queensland, some other states and territories also provide free HIV ARTs. You can find out more by talking to a healthcare provider in these areas.

Telling your sexual partners

If you find out you have HIV, anyone you’ve had unprotected anal or vaginal sex with, or shared needles with, should be advised to have a test. This is called contact tracing or partner notification.

If you feel uncomfortable or unable to tell the people you've had sex with, your GP or health professional can contact them for you. They won’t mention your name to make sure it’s a confidential process. Contact tracing is very important for your sexual partner’s health, and the health of anyone they have sex with.

Last updated: April 2024