HIV and AIDS: What's the Difference?

HIV and AIDS: What's the Difference?

This year marks 40 years since the world first reported cases of HIV-related illnesses and deaths, and we’ve certainly come a long way since then.
No longer is the disease a death sentence; no longer do people fear and shun those living with the condition.
But there are still misconceptions surrounding HIV - in fact, a recent survey found that 1 in 5 people thought that they can catch HIV through kissing.
As part of World AIDS Day, we’ve written this guide to help you understand the difference between HIV and AIDS, and to eliminate the common misconceptions surrounding the disease.
So, let’s #RockTheRibbon and be an HIV ally, because living with HIV shouldn’t stop you from living a happy, healthy life.

What is HIV?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) was first identified in the 1980s, and whilst it isn’t curable yet, the disease can be managed.
HIV targets the immune system, and without effective treatment, you’ll be highly vulnerable to infections and cancers that your immune system will struggle to fight off.
You can catch HIV: 

  • By having unprotected sex with an infected person
  • By sharing needles with an infection person
  • From an infected mother who can pass it onto her baby during pregnancy

You can only develop HIV by coming into contact with certain bodily fluids like blood, semen/vaginal fluids and breastmilk - you can’t catch HIV through saliva, urine or sweat as there won’t be enough of the virus in these substances.

What is AIDS?

AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) otherwise known as ‘advanced HIV’ or ‘late-stage HIV’ is what you can develop if your HIV is untreated for a long period of time.
At this point, your immune system will be severely damaged and unable to fight off infections - even the common cold can be very dangerous for a person with AIDS.
There are a range of treatment options that can prevent HIV from advancing into AIDS, and today there are far fewer people developing AIDS compared to when the disease first entered the limelight back in 1981. 


Diagnosing HIV

Recognising HIV can be tricky because the initial symptoms display themselves as a relatively ordinary flu-like illness.
These symptoms will set in shortly after you’ve been infected, a sign that your body is putting up a fight against the infection.
HIV will then lie dormant in your body, and it probably won’t trouble you for many years until your immune system becomes severely damaged.
The only way to find out if you’ve got HIV is by getting tested; you can do this by speaking to your GP or visiting your local sexual health clinic.
The test is simple and it’s done by taking a blood sample or by swabbing the inside of your cheek.
Certain people are more at risk of developing HIV than others, including:

  • people with a current or previous partner with HIV
  • people with a current or previous partner who is from an area with high HIV rates
  • people who are from an area with high HIV rates
  • people who engage in chemsex (using drugs to help or enhance sex)
  • men who have unprotected sex with men
  • women who have unprotected sex with men who have sex with men
  • people who inject drugs and share equipment
  • people who have unprotected sex with somebody who has injected drugs and shared equipment
  • people who share sex toys with someone infected with HIV
  • people with a history of sexually transmitted infections, hepatitis B or hepatitis C
  • people who have had multiple sexual partners
  • people who have been raped
  • people who have received a blood transfusion, transplant or other risk-prone procedures in countries that do not have strong screening for HIV
  • healthcare workers who could accidentally prick themselves with an infected needle – but this risk is extremely low
  • babies born from a parent with untreated HIV

If this sounds like you, it’s advisable that you get tested.

Prevention and treatment

You can prevent yourself from contracting HIV by never sharing needles, always wearing a condom each time you have sex, and by taking a pre-exposure drug like PrEP, which protects you against HIV before you’re exposed to the virus.
If you’ve contracted HIV, it doesn’t mean your life is over - there are treatments available, like antiretroviral therapy (ART), that will reduce the amount of HIV in your body, enabling you to live a normal life.
If you stick to your HIV treatment, you will lower the risk of passing HIV on to other people.
Recently, the NHS approved the first long-acting injection that works to keep the HIV virus levels low.
It's estimated that around 13,000 people will be eligible for the injection, which means they won't need daily treatment like ART drugs, just two injections every two months.

Every person who has AIDS will have HIV, but not every person with HIV will develop AIDS.
To summarise, HIV is the virus that attacks your immune system, whereas AIDS is when the virus has progressed and the immune system has been severely damaged.
We hope this guide has helped you learn a little more about HIV and AIDS, and has encouraged you to get tested if you think you’re at risk.
To find out more, visit the World AIDS Day website.

Alexandra Moses - Medical Content Writer
James O'Loan - CEO & Prescribing Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Prescribing Pharmacist on 01 December 2021
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