What's the difference between HIV and AIDS?

Can you tell the difference between HIV and AIDS?

ANSWER: HIV is a virus that can develop into AIDS if it isn't managed, whereas AIDS is a syndrome that comes with a range of symptoms, like a weakened immune system. To develop AIDS, you must have HIV; it’s impossible to have AIDS without first having HIV.

It’s been over 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, and 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.

That’s why we’ve written this guide to help you understand the difference between AIDS and HIV, and to eliminate the common misconceptions surrounding the disease. Everyone deserves to live a happy and healthy life, and living with HIV shouldn’t stand in your way.

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.

The stages of HIV

There are three stages to HIV: acute, chronic and then finally, AIDS. Keep reading to learn about each stage in more detail. Remember, these stages don’t progress rapidly; it can take years for the chronic HIV stage to develop into AIDS.

Acute HIV

The first stage develops around 2-4 weeks after you’ve been infected with HIV. Some people may experience flu-like symptoms, like a fever, headache and rash.

During the acute stage, the levels of HIV in your blood will be very high, increasing the risk of passing the virus to others. Thankfully, if you start ART treatment in the acute stage, it will slow down its progression and can keep you healthy for many years.

Chronic HIV

To progress into the chronic stage from the acute stage, it can take a matter of weeks or months. The second stage of HIV is sometimes known as asymptomatic HIV, meaning you’ll probably have no HIV-related symptoms.

The virus continues to multiply, but the levels are low. Those who are taking HIV treatment exactly as prescribed during the chronic stage can’t transmit the virus to others through sex, and it will be virtually undetectable.


People often ask how you can catch AIDS. But as we’ve explained, you first need to have HIV for the virus to develop into AIDS, and that same HIV has to go untreated for a long time in order for it to progress into the final and most severe stage of HIV: AIDS.

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. 

HIV can lead to AIDS

We know that people with HIV can develop AIDS in years to come if their HIV isn’t managed. Although both HIV and AIDS can be managed with treatments, AIDS can be fatal if it’s left untreated, with most surviving for just three years.

The symptoms of HIV and AIDS

In order to know if you’ve been infected with HIV, you’ll need to know the symptoms! Recognising HIV can be tricky because the initial symptoms display themselves as a relatively ordinary flu-like illness.

That’s why it’s so important to consider the circumstances as well as the symptoms. For example, have you had unprotected sex? Or have you been sharing needles? But don’t ponder these questions too much for now – we’ll explain the causes of HIV later on.

Short term symptoms of HIV

When you first become infected with HIV, many people develop symptoms similar to other common illnesses, like the flu. However, the short-term symptoms of HIV aren’t limited to a fever or aches and pains. You may also experience:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Tiredness
  • Enlarged liver or spleen
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rash
  • Thrush

These symptoms can take 1-2 weeks to subside, and can often be mistaken for other viral infections, and they’re a sign that your immune system is putting up a fight against the virus.

Long term complications

Even if your HIV hasn’t progressed into AIDS, there are some long-term complications that could affect you in the future, such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD)
  • Certain cancers
  • Bone disease
  • Diabetes
  • Frailty
  • Liver disease
  • Lung disease
  • Renal disease
  • Cognitive disorders


HIV doesn’t always produce symptoms

Although around 80% of people who have been recently diagnosed with HIV experience the short-term symptoms listed above, there are a small few who are symptomless. As HIV progresses, it may not produce any symptoms for a while – that’s why it’s essential if you’re at risk of HIV to get tested and always use a preventative, such as PrEP.

Differences between symptoms in men and women

The symptoms for HIV in men and women are mostly the same. Nevertheless, there can be some subtle differences between the genders. HIV symptoms in women may present themselves as changes in your period, lower stomach pain, unusual vaginal discharge and thrush.

The causes of HIV

As promised, let’s move on to the causes of HIV and discuss who is more at risk. Hopefully, we can eliminate some of those common misconceptions while we’re at it!

How do you get HIV?

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

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


Who is more at risk of catching HIV?

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.

Treatment options

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.

There’s also post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) which should be taken if you think you’ve been exposed to the HIV virus, stopping you from becoming infected. It’s typically only recommended for those who have had high risk exposure, as would be the case if their sexual partner is known to be HIV positive.

Preventing HIV and AIDS

You can prevent yourself from contracting HIV by never sharing needles and always wearing a condom each time you have sex, but did you know that there is also a preventative drug you can take?

How to prevent HIV

This drug is known as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and it’s designed for people who are HIV negative but are at a very high risk of exposure to HIV. PrEP helps to reduce your chances of catching the virus by up to 99% when used correctly.

PrEP contains two drugs: tenofovir and emtricitabine, which are used to actually treat HIV. Sometimes PrEP is known by its brand name Truvada, but most versions in the UK are generic – don’t worry, they’ll still be just as effective!

Certain people choose not to take PrEP everyday; instead, they’ll take it when they know they’re going to be at high risk for catching HIV, like before a date, holiday or night out. This is something known as on-demand dosing.

But be careful – as you’ll need to take it continuously for seven days before the event, some people prefer to take PrEP everyday to know they’re protected, especially for those spontaneous outings!

You’re able to buy PrEP from the clinic section on our website. By completing a quick and easy consultation, one of our prescribing pharmacists will be able to decide whether PrEP is the right option for you.

Reducing the chances of HIV patients developing AIDS

Once HIV has been diagnosed, it will be managed immediately to prevent the virus from eventually progressing into AIDS. The biggest concern is catching HIV too late when it’s already developed into AIDS, which could happen if you don’t display any symptoms.

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.

Treatment as prevention

HIV isn’t curable yet, but you can treat it to prevent others from catching it. When you have HIV, you’ll have regular blood tests while taking ART to ensure the levels of HIV in your blood are low. Some people achieve an undectable amount of HIV in their blood, or ‘U=U’ meaning they cannot sexually transmit the virus to others.

Living with HIV

You’ve got your diagnosis, what’s next? First it’s important to tell all of your sexual partners that you’re HIV positive. This ensures that these people can get tested and start treatment immediately if they happen to be HIV positive, too.

You’ll also be asked to conduct regular blood tests to ensure the HIV levels in your blood are low or undetectable, ensuring you’re not putting other people at risk.

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 information or where you can access support, visit the NHS or the THT website.

Alexandra Moses - Medical Content Writer
James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 01 December 2022
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