Image of orange HIV floating against a dark blue background, with one being examined by a magnifying glass.

HIV and AIDS: What’s the Difference?

There is a bit of confusion surrounding the association between these two terms–so what is the difference between HIV and AIDS? While many may use them interchangeably, HIV is a virus that, over time and by damaging the immune system, causes AIDS.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is acquired by sharing needles or may be sexually transmitted during vaginal or anal sex. HIV infection is broken into 3 different stages, depending on how the disease is affecting the body.

These stages include acute infection, chronic infection, and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Below includes a summary of all these stages and how they progress, as explained by The Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Acute HIV

Acute HIV typically starts a few weeks after someone is infected. Some people may not have any symptoms, but others develop flu-like symptoms including fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes, joint pain and rash. During this stage, a large amount of virus is present in the body and the infection is very contagious.

Chronic HIV

Chronic HIV is characterized by continued reproduction of the virus, but the process is slower than during the acute stage and there is a smaller amount of virus present. Chronic HIV is often asymptomatic, and may last for years, even without treatment. Even without symptoms and with lower virus levels, people can still pass on HIV on to others.

AIDS

Without treatment, HIV typically takes about a decade to advance to AIDS, but it may be quicker or slower. HIV infects CD4 cells, which are immune cells that help fight infection. AIDS occurs when there is a significant decrease in healthy CD4 cells and the immune system is no longer able to fight off infections. People survive an average of 3 years after AIDS develops if they do not receive treatment. People again become very contagious as they have large amounts of the virus in their systems.

In summary, AIDS is the last and most serious stage of HIV infection and shows how far the infection has progressed.

Side by side comparison of cells prior to infection, during chronic HIV infection, and once someone has developed AIDS.

Treatment and Prevention

Even though there is no cure for HIV, there are treatments available that slow or even stop the virus from increasing and delay or prevent the development of AIDS. These methods work best when the infection is caught early, so it is important to get tested for HIV even if you don’t have symptoms.

The primary treatment for HIV infection is antiretroviral therapy (ART). These medications slow or possibly stop the progression of HIV. While there are potential side effects, they are not usually severe. ART helps people living with HIV lead long, healthy lives. ART also reduces the amount of virus in the body, so people taking these medications are usually less contagious.

To prevent acquiring this disease, practicing safer sex, including regular condom use, is important. HIV is also transmitted through the sharing of needles, such as those used to abuse illicit drugs, so you can protect yourself from exposure to HIV by not sharing needles.

How to Get Treated

As mentioned, the sooner HIV is caught, the more effective ART is, so the key to successful treatment is early diagnosis. Testing normally involves sampling blood or saliva to look for antigens (evidence of the virus in the bloodstream) or antibodies (which are made by the immune system in response to the infection).

Set up an appointment with our support team to get discrete testing for HIV or any sexually transmitted disease. If there is a possibility that you or your partner(s) may have been exposed to HIV, it is in the best interest of both you and others to receive testing and early access to treatment. HIV is no longer considered the death sentence it once was: With the use of ART, people living with HIV can live long, normal and full lives.