What is HIV?

At SHiP Derriford Hospital we offer support and counselling before and after testing for HIV, as well as lifelong HIV care and treatment.

HIV is a viral infection that can be passed on through unprotected sex, by sharing infected injecting equipment and from an HIV positive mother to her child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.

Other than a ‘flu-like illness a few weeks after becoming infected, HIV often has no symptoms – so the only way to know if you have the virus is to have a blood test.

Over time, HIV infection depletes the body’s circulating ‘CD4’ blood cells, which are responsible for coordinating the response that fights infection. This means that the person becomes increasingly at-risk of ‘opportunistic’ infections that a healthy person would not.

Although there is currently no cure for HIV, safe and modern medication is available that really works. Treatment reverses CD4 cell loss and allows the majority of people living with the virus to live a healthy life. If HIV is diagnosed early enough, life expectancy is the same as in those who are HIV-negative.

Aidsmap is an excellent source of information about HIV.

Who should test?

We recommend everyone has at least one baseline HIV test, with those who are more at risk testing more often, according to risk of exposure.

If you think you have been exposed to HIV within the last 72 hours, we can offer you tablets called PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis). This can reduce your risk of contracting HIV – but you need to call us immediately to make an appointment as PEP must be started within 72 hours after possible exposure to HIV. Outside our opening hours, you can go straight to an Emergency Department.


How soon after possible exposure can I test?

If a person does contract HIV from having unprotected sex it may not show on blood testing for some time, even though they have the virus. This is known as the window period, during which the blood test may read negative (all clear) even though HIV infection is established. During these first few weeks of infection a person is extremely infectious to their sexual partners.

For HIV, the accuracy of the test evolves as below:

  • at 4 weeks from HIV exposure, the HIV test will detect 90-95% of infections
  • at 6 weeks, the HIV test will detect more than 99% of infections
  • at 12 weeks, the HIV test will detect more than 99.9% of infections
How to get tested

Online STI test kits
SHiP online STI test kits are a convenient way of taking an HIV test. When you use this service we will ask you some questions online and then post an appropriate test kit and instructions to you at home. Testing for HIV and syphilis requires you to collect your own blood in a small tube after pricking your finger with a sterile lancet (provided). Please look at these blood sampling instructions – if you do not feel confident about doing it yourself, you may prefer to test in clinic.

Test in clinic
You can come and see us at a SHiP clinics in and around Plymouth – either by booking an appointment or using the walk-in sessions.

The Eddystone Trust
The Eddystone Trust offer free and confidential, rapid HIV testing with results in 20 minutes. This is available at weekly drop-in sessions and can also be arranged at a time and place that may be more convenient to you. For more information on this testing option visit their website or call 01752 254406 to speak to a Community Worker.

Instant HIV Self Test (fingerprick test, instant result)
This HIV-only test gives an instant result in 15 minutes, from a single drop of blood. You read the result yourself at home. Please note that this does not test for any other STIs.