What’s the difference between HIV and AIDS? This is a common question. They both share the HIV virus, but are different stages of the disease.
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus; it is the virus that causes HIV and the term used to refer to both the virus and the infection it causes. HIV attacks and destroys specific immune system cells called CD4 cells. The body’s loss of these cells makes it less able to ward off other diseases and infections, including cancers.
AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS is the final, most advanced stage of an HIV infection.
When left untreated, HIV advances to AIDS after it has wiped out enough CD4 cells. Treatment can help stop the progression of HIV to AIDS. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is a combination of medications that are used to prevent HIV from replicating, thereby reducing the amount of the virus in the body. The less HIV in the body, the better chance the immune system has to protect the body against the virus and infection. ART is not a cure, but can help those with HIV live longer lives, be healthier, and helps lower the risk of transmitting HIV to others. The partner of someone who is on treatment for HIV (or anyone at a high risk of getting the virus) should start a preventive medication called PrEP– pre-exposure prophylaxis. When this pill is taken consistently, it lowers the risk in people who are at risk by helping to keep the virus from founding a permanent HIV infection.
Once an individual is infected with HIV, they tend to develop flu-like symptoms within a few weeks or months. Common initial symptoms include headaches, fever and/or a rash. More serious symptoms may develop if treatment is not sought, including rapid weight loss, chronic diarrhea, infections or diseases that would not otherwise occur if the person was healthy and had a strong immune system. These more severe symptoms do not occur for years. It usually many takes years of no treatment for the virus to progress to AIDS.
When someone dies of AIDS, it is typically because they got sick with another type of disease or infection and their immune system wasn’t strong enough to fight it off because it was suppressed by the human immunodeficiency virus. AIDS is diagnosed by measuring a person’s CD4 cell count. A count of fewer than 200 cells/mm3 in the blood indicates AIDS, whereas a typical, healthy individual has around 500-1,600 cells/mm3 in a blood sample. AIDS can also be diagnosed when an HIV-positive individual has more than one chronic opportunistic infection.
HIV can be transmitted by many pathways, including:
- Breast milk
- Semen and pre-seminal (pre-ejaculate) fluid
- Vaginal fluids
- Rectal fluids
HIV can be passed from mothers to their babies during childbirth, or during breastfeeding. Treating an HIV-positive mother with ART during pregnancy and providing HIV medications to newborns lessens the risk of transmission significantly.
HIV is commonly transmitted via vaginal or anal sex, but can be spread other ways. Condoms can help reduce the risk of getting HIV during vaginal or anal sex. Since the virus can be contracted from HIV-positive blood, sharing drug needles or even using tattooing equipment that was not properly sterilized can transmit the virus.
You cannot get HIV from skin-to-skin contact– so touching, high-fiving, hugging, or shaking hands with someone who is HIV-positive will not infect you. Neither will having contact with items that an HIV-positive person has touched, like phones, toilets, door handles or cups and dishes.