The facts

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is a virus that affects the body’s immune system. Over time, and without effective treatment, it weakens the immune system leaving the person who has HIV open to other infections. HIV used to be a considered a terminal illness but advances in treatments mean it is possible to live a long and healthy life with HIV.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. A person living with HIV is said to have AIDS if their immune system becomes weakened by HIV to a severe extent where it causes a number of specific illnesses, for example Kaposi sarcoma or recurrent pneumonia.

With correct treatment it’s possible to recover from having AIDS, which means the physical illnesses have gone away although the person will still have HIV.

In the 1980s and early 1990s before treatments were available the term AIDS was used frequently. The effectiveness of treatments means that very few people living with HIV go on to develop AIDS in Scotland anymore.

Is there a cure for HIV?

No, there is no cure for HIV. However, treatment is available to prevent viral replication which helps minimise viral damage and the chances of transmission. People who are on HIV treatments can live full, healthy and active lives. If diagnosed early and with the right treatment someone living with HIV can have the same healthy life expectancy as someone who does not have HIV. If a person with HIV is on treatment and undetectable then they do not pass HIV on.

How is HIV transmitted?

The HIV virus can be found in blood, semen, pre-ejaculatory fluid, vaginal and rectal secretions and breast milk. It can only be passed on if one of these fluids exits the body of someone with HIV and enters the blood stream of someone who does not have HIV.

Very small amounts of HIV virus can also technically be found in saliva but not in sufficient quantity to cause transmission. There has never been a case of HIV transmission through saliva recorded in Scotland.

You cannot get HIV from: kissing, hugging, massage, any non-sexual physical contact, sharing cutlery, drinking from the same glass or sharing food, or from contact with surfaces such as toilet seats.

These are some of the ways by which HIV can be passed on:

Unprotected vaginal or anal sex:
Using condoms and water based lube during sex is one of the most effective ways of reducing HIV transmission and other sexually transmitted infections.

Sharing injecting equipment:
Sharing needles is a high risk activity as it is a potential route for HIV to be passed from person to person. If injecting drugs, you should always make sure you are using clean injecting equipment. Sharing injecting equipment is also a high risk activity for hepatitis B and C transmission. For more information on this you can visit

During pregnancy, at birth and through breast feeding:
This risk can be virtually eliminated if the mother is on effective HIV medication and if the child is bottle-fed.

Oral sex:
Although oral sex is very low risk for HIV, it is not completely risk-free – other STIs like gonorrhoea, syphilis and hepatitis A and B are relatively easily passed on through oral sex.

What about protection?

Although there is no cure for HIV you can protect yourself and your partner by practicing safer sex and having regular sexual health checks and by using sterile injecting equipment. For more information about protection, click here.

If a person living with HIV is on effective treatment and undetectable they do not pass HIV on.

How do I know if I have HIV?

The only way to know if you have HIV is to have a test. If you think you might have been at risk, or it has been a while since you were last tested, go to your local sexual health clinic or GP for testing.