HIV symptoms, prevention and treatment

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. Currently, there is no cure for HIV, but consistent use of medication can reduce the amount of virus in the body and help the immune system to stay strong and the infected person to remain healthy. Without treatment the virus damages the immune system making a person vulnerable to many different kinds of infections, diseases and cancers and may become AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).

Make an appointment at any of our clinics in Greater Victoria to have a confidential HIV test, or to find out more.

For further information, visit BCCDC’s HIV page.

How HIV spreads

Worldwide, millions of people are living with HIV. Access to testing and ongoing treatment enable people to manage the virus very well.

HIV is found in sexual fluids (semen, vaginal and anal fluids), blood and breast milk. It is spread by sharing these fluids.

  • HIV can be spread through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex with an infected partner, or by sharing sex toys
  • HIV can be transmitted by blood to blood contact (sharing drug equipment; using unsterilized needles for tattoos, piercings or acupuncture; sharing sharp personal items such as razors, etc.)
  • HIV can be spread by untested blood transfusions, organ transplants or artificial insemination. In Canada all donors have been screened for HIV since 1985.
  • An infected person who is pregnant can pass the virus to the fetus during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding. Medications can be taken during pregnancy to prevent the virus from being transmitted.

HIV prevention

To prevent HIV, use good sex safety skills including regular infection screening.

  • Use condoms to reduce the risk of HIV during vaginal or anal sex. A new condom must be used with each new sexual act.
  • Use condoms and oral dams to reduce risk of transmission during oral sex.
  • Avoid sharing equipment for drugs, or other items that contain blood.
  • Use of PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis) – a medication that can be taken by HIV negative people to reduce their risk of becoming HIV positive. Taking this medication daily allows HIV negative people to reduce their risk of acquiring HIV from a HIV positive partner(s). PrEP is currently a provincially funded program for eligible British Columbians and federally funded program for Indigenous people with status. In Victoria a person can get more information about PrEP by calling our clinic at 250-592-3479 or through the good folks at AVI 1-800-665-2437. PrEP  only helps to lower the risk of acquiring HIV not any of the other STIs.


  • What is PrEP?
    • HIV Pre exposure prophylaxis (PrEP for short) is a medication that can be taken to prevent HIV transmission. It is intended to be taken by people who are HIV negative before being exposed to HIV. When taken consistently every day, PrEP can prevent the transmission of HIV by up to 99%. This medication is also called Truvada.
  • How does PrEP work?
    • When taken consistently, the medication (Truvada) builds up in blood and tissues and protects exposed areas (ie the rectum, vagina or cervix) from HIV.
  • Who can access PrEP?
    • PrEP is free for BC residents with active MSP (BC medical coverage) who meet the BC Center for Excellence criteria for being at an increased risk of acquiring HIV.Increased risk is defined as reporting condomless anal sex and having any of the following:
  1. a previous infectious syphilis or a rectal bacterial sexually transmitted infection (STI), especially if you were diagnosed in the last 12 months
  2. Use of non-occupational post-exposure prophylaxis (nPEP) more than once.
  3. Ongoing sexual relationship with an HIV-positive partner who is not taking HIV meds (ART) and/or does not have an HIV viral load <200 copies/ mL.
  4. (HIRI-MSM) score of 10 or higher (this is a screening tool that identifies risk of HIV transmission)

**If you don’t meet the above criteria but want to access PrEP, we still encourage you to come speak or doctor about alternative access routes. You can also get PrEP for free if you are indigenous and covered under the First Nations Health Authority or Non Insured Health Benefits.**

  • What else do I need to know about PrEP?
    • PrEP needs to be taken consistently for at least 7 days before you are protected from HIV. It’s best to use condoms, at least for the first week.
    • Missed doses: if you miss more than 3 days in a week, you are not protected. Protect yourself by using condoms or abstaining until you’ve been back on your meds for at least 1 full week. if you’ve had a potential exposure to HIV during this time, contact the clinic to speak with a provider about whether you need nPEP.
    • PrEP will not protect you from other STIs like gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. We always recommend using barriers (condom, oral dam, glove) to reduce risk.
    • Side effects are rare. Some people experience nausea, diarrhea and bloating; these symptoms usually stop after the first few weeks
    • Risks: Truvada can lead to kidney damage (this is rare). Before starting PrEP, the doctor will check your kidney function with blood and urine tests. These tests need to be repeated every 3 months.
    • Truvada may also reduce bone density (slight thinning of the bones); this is reversed when PrEP is stopped. This is not considered a serious concern in healthy individuals, but may be important if you already have bone problems.
    • Stopping PrEP: if you decide to stop PrEP, it is important that you talk about how to best do so with your doctor. If you’ve been using it regularly you can usually stop if it has been more than 48 hours after your last sexual exposure. Make sure you get follow up HIV testing 4-6 weeks after stopping.
  • How does a person access PrEP at ISH?
    • Call us to set up a consult appointment 250-592-3479. There are several steps involved in accessing PrEP at ISH. You’ll be asked to complete an assessment form or HIRI score at your first appointment, you are welcome to print and complete it and bring it along to your first appointment.
    • If you have questions, call us to book an appointment 250-592-3479
  • PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxismedication is used as a response within 72 hours to a potential exposure to HIV. To access PEP, you can call us, go to the nearest Emergency Room at your local hospital or call AVI 1-800-665-2437. Smart Sex Resource also has more information available on PEP
  • Make an appointment to get tested for HIV/AIDS.

HIV symptoms

  • Many people have no symptoms at all for the first few years.
  • When symptoms do appear, they can be varied and non-specific such as fatigue, weight loss, night sweats, swollen lymph nodes and constant “other” infections.

Make an appointment to have an HIV test. We offer confidential testing in Greater Victoria, BC.

Risks of HIV

HIV can weaken the immune system without treatment, making a person vulnerable to other infections and diseases. When the immune system has been severely weakened by HIV, it may progress to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). Even without treatment, it takes a long time (usually 10-12 years) for HIV to progress to AIDS.  Having HIV does NOT mean you have AIDS or will develop AIDS.

HIV tests and diagnosis

HIV is diagnosed with a blood test. According to the BCCDC, the best time to test most people is 6 weeks after having sex with a partner.

The blood test either test for antibodies to the virus or small amounts of the virus itself. Usually, antibodies are present within 3-6 weeks after contact. This time is called a window period (the time before the antibody will show up in this blood test). A routine blood test can be ordered and results usually are back in 10-21 days. A rapid point of care (POC) test can be done by providing a drop of blood from the finger and the results will be available within a few minutes. Not all clinics offer the POC testing. Currently, our clinics do not use the POC testing method but other clinics in Victoria do.

Make an appointment to have a HIV test. We offer confidential testing in Greater Victoria, BC.

HIV and AIDS treatment

Currently, there is no cure for HIV, but there are treatments that can delay the progression of the infection very effectively. The treatment is a combination of medications called HAART (Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy). HAART lowers the amount of virus present in the body and helps a person to stay healthy. Once a person is diagnosed with HIV, they work closely with a health care provider to decide the best course of treatment for their situation.  Contact our clinics for treatment resources in Victoria, or contact AVI Health and Community Services.