A to Z of HIV and STIs

Before we could read and write, we first had to learn the building blocks for written language in the form of the alphabet: A is for apple, B is for ball, and so on.

So, when it comes to HIV and STIs, what are the building blocks that we need to know to live our healthiest lives?

Here’s our A to Z for HIV and STIs.

A is for AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)

AIDS is an acronym that stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is a condition in which HIV has severely impaired a person’s immune system making them vulnerable to life-threatening infections and cancers. Thankfully, due to modern treatment, it’s very unlikely for a person living with HIV in Australia to progress to AIDS.

B is for Blood Test

A blood test is a standard part of testing for HIV and other blood-borne STIs such as syphilis.

Several types of blood tests screen for HIV, including rapid HIV tests, dried blood spot (DBS) tests and standard blood tests you might get at a sexual health clinic. Learn more about testing for HIV here, and be sure that a blood test is always part of your sexual health check-up!

C is for Condom

Stretchy and versatile, the good ol’ condom has undoubtedly helped prevent millions of cases of HIV and STIs worldwide.

Condom-like devices have been around since ancient times, but condoms, as we know them today, are rubber or latex sheaths that cover a person’s penis and are designed to prevent the transmission of HIV and other STIs. Find out how to pick the perfect condom and more here.

C is for Chlamydia

A common STI for gay, bi and other guys who have sex with guys, chlamydia is a bacterial STI that can be spread during anal or oral sex. For many guys, it will go unnoticed with no symptoms present.

If symptoms develop, they may include discharge from the urethra (penis or front hole), burning with urination and painful testicles. Treatment to cure usually involves a short course of antibiotics.

D is for Drug-resistance

Drug-resistance can occur in different ways. When treating HIV and other STIs, failing to take medication as prescribed can lead to HIV and other STIs becoming drug-resistant. This can potentially lead to your prescribed medication no longer being able to cure or control the virus or bacteria in your body. It’s always best to take medication as prescribed, whether it’s your HIV treatment or treatment for another STI.

E is for Epidemic

An epidemic is a widespread infectious disease in a community or human population at a particular time — for example, the HIV or COVID-19 epidemic.

F is for Frequency of testing

How frequently should you be testing for HIV and STIs? For any gay, bi or other guys who have sex with guys, it’s recommended to get tested once every three months while they remain sexually active. Find a place to get tested here.

G is for Gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea is a bacterial STI that can infect the penis, front hole, anus and throat and is common among gay, bi and other guys who have sex with guys. Gonorrhoea, similar to chlamydia, can often present with no symptoms at all, which is why it’s essential to get tested regularly.

H is for HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus)

Human immunodeficiency virus (or HIV) is a virus that attacks the immune system, the body’s defence against disease and infection. For guys, HIV primarily exists in the blood, semen, anal and front-hole fluids, and it can be transmitted when one of these fluids enters the bloodstream of an HIV-negative person. Find out more about HIV and how you can stay safe.

I is for Itching

Itching is a common symptom of several STIs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea. If you are concerned that you might be experiencing the symptoms of an STI, seek testing from a sexual health clinic or a doctor.

J is for Judgement-free

Just as judging people for their race, gender, or sexuality is unacceptable, so too should be judging others for their HIV and STI status.

The stigma surrounding HIV status can be harmful in many ways such as impacting on the mental health of people living with HIV and making people less likely to seek health care. So, when talking about sex and HIV, let’s keep it judgement-free!

K is for Knowledge

When it comes to HIV, knowledge is power. If you know your HIV status, then you have the ability to make any informed decisions necessary to live your healthiest life. Knowing your status means you are taking care of your health and the health of those you play with too.

L is for LGV

Lymphogranuloma venereum, or LGV, is a rare bacterial STI that can be transmitted through anal or oral sex. Many people don’t have symptoms after contracting LGV, though they remain infectious to their partners. The good news is that LGV isn’t very common in Australia, but if you want to lower your risk, you can use condoms and lube during sex.

M is for Mouth swab

Mouth swabs (also known as throat swabs) are sterile cotton swabs used to collect skin cells at the back of the throat and around the tonsils to detect the presence of an STI. These swabs screen for bacterial STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea and can usually be self-collected.

N is for No Symptoms

When someone has an STI but is showing no symptoms, it is known as being asymptomatic. Given that many STIs can be asymptomatic, so as long as you are sexually active, you should get tested for HIV and STIs once every three months to be sure.

O is for Oral Sex

Blowie, gobby or whatever you call it, oral sex is one of the most common forms of sex. Thankfully, oral sex is considered very low risk for HIV transmission, though this risk may increase if there is ejaculation in the mouth while cuts or sores are present. Undamaged tissues in the throat and mouth are considered less susceptible to HIV infection when compared with anal and genital tissues. Additionally, an enzyme present in your saliva will also break down HIV.

However, it is possible to transmit other STIs through oral sex, so keep up with your regular HIV and STI screenings. Learn more about oral sex and HIV.

P is for PrEP

PrEP is an acronym that stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis. It’s an antiretroviral medication taken to prevent HIV infection. When PrEP is used correctly, it’s highly effective at preventing HIV.

There are different ways to take PrEP, each with unique benefits. Depending on your circumstance, you could take oral PrEP daily, on-demand (also known as 2-1-1), or periodically. Learn more about the ways you can take oral PrEP here.

There’s also injectable PrEP which involves an injection rather than taking pills which is on the horizon.

P is for PEP

Post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP as it’s commonly known, is a short course of HIV medication that is taken after a potential exposure to HIV to prevent infection. PEP is only effective if it’s started within 72 hours of exposure to HIV, so if you need it, don’t delay! You can find PEP at sexual health clinics, and hospital accident and emergency departments in NSW.

Q is for Quick results

Did you know you can get quick HIV testing results within 30 minutes or less? Rapid HIV tests are available at many sexual health clinics and community testing sites across the state, including a[TEST].

A rapid HIV test involves drawing a small amount of blood, usually through a finger prick. The blood sample is then fed into the test kit, and a result is displayed within 15-30 minutes.

R is for Rectal swab

Rectal swabs, similar to mouth swabs, are used to collect a sample of cells from the tissue just inside the rectum to test if STIs are present. These swabs screen for bacterial STIs, like chlamydia and gonorrhoea and are usually self-collected.

S is for Shigella

Shigella is a bacteria that causes a bowel infection called shigellosis, which is highly infectious and can cause diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea, stomach cramps and fever. It is passed on when particles of contaminated faeces enter someone else’s mouth, usually through practices such as rimming or handling used condoms and sex toys.

S is for Syphilis

Syphilis is an STI usually passed on during oral sex, anal sex, skin-to-skin contact or when sharing sex toys. The first symptom of syphilis is usually a visible, painless sore known as a ‘chancre’ which is followed by other symptoms such as a rash, fever and headache. Getting tested for syphilis is usually part of a regular sexual health screen when you attend a sexual health clinic.

T is for Testing

Testing is an important part of looking after your health and that of your partners and has long been part of our safe sex culture. Testing is critical to detecting cases and driving down HIV infections across NSW. Today, there are many ways to get tested. Learn more about testing here.

T is for Treatment

Treatment, also known as Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART), is the use of medication to control and reduce the presence of HIV in a person’s body. While there’s currently no cure, HIV treatment keeps people living with HIV healthy and prevents the onward transmission of the virus! Learn more about treatment.

U is for Undetectable or U=U

When a person living with HIV starts treatment, not only can they enjoy better health, but if they sustain their treatment for a period of time, usually they can reduce HIV in their body to an ‘undetectable’ level. By achieving an undetectable viral load (or UVL), it means that there is no risk of transmitting HIV to others. It’s true!

U=U, which stands for ‘undetectable equals untransmittable’ is a social awareness campaign of the science behind undetectable. On dating apps, some guys have started to use the term in their profiles, to help communicate their undetectable status.

V is for Vaccination

While not all STIs have a vaccine (e.g. HIV and syphilis), vaccination can provide protection against certain STIs and diseases that are spread through sexual contact, such as MPOX. As we saw with COVID-19, vaccination plays an important part in ensuring the greater population’s health and safety.

Currently, gay, bi and other guys who have sex with guys can get vaccinated for Hepatitis A and B, with vaccine studies for other STIs, such as the GoGoVax study for gonorrhoea in trial.

W is for Window Period

The window period is the time between exposure to an STI and the point when tests can detect it. In the case of HIV, the window period is up to three months. While some test window periods are shorter than this, if you receive a negative test result three months after your potential exposure to HIV and you’ve had no risk of transmission during that time, it’s safe to say you do not have HIV. However, if you’ve continued to be sexually active in that period, you will need to get tested again. Read more about HIV testing and the window period here.

X is for eXpiry date

Expiry dates of PrEP, condoms and lube are crucial to be on top of. Using PrEP pills past their expiration date can impact their effectiveness. For condoms and lube, it can affect their durability and comfort, sometimes leading to the condom breaking. Whatever it is, it’s always best to use items before their expiry date and replace them once they expire.

Y is for You

We all play an important part towards ending new HIV transmissions and a future free of HIV, and it all starts with you. Arm yourself with knowledge, practise sex safely and test routinely. Do it for the community, but more so, do it for yourself.

Z is for Zero Transmissions

Zero new transmissions of HIV is the goal. An ambitious goal, but it is possible. And what a day that would be when we finally achieve it.

We’ve made great strides towards zero, and year on year we’ve seen the number of infections decrease. Now more than ever, we must keep up the pace and the momentum!