HIV vs. AIDS vs. HIV/AIDS — What’s the Difference?
HIV, AIDS, HIV/AIDS — the terms are often used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. If you're not totally clear on how they differ, don't worry: you’re not alone. That's why we put together a quick and easy cheat sheet. You may not know the difference between cement and concrete, but when it comes to HIV and AIDS, definitions are important. Here are the key facts you need to know:
First Things First
What is HIV?
Discovered in 1983 by researchers in both France and the United States, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a retrovirus — that is, a virus that moves into healthy cells and re-engineers the host cell’s DNA. HIV is like a really bad houseguest — one that not only shows up unannounced, but moves all your furniture around while they’re at it. The compromised cells are spread from person to person through contact with certain bodily fluids. HIV is usually transmitted through intercourse or needle use, but can also move from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth. Contrary to popular belief, it can’t be transmitted through sweat, saliva or urine.
What is AIDS?
Coined in 1982, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) describes the most serious stage of HIV infection. It’s called “acquired” to differentiate it from genetic or hereditary immune deficiencies. The word “syndrome” is used to describe not a single illness, but a cluster of symptoms.
People who have developed AIDS have an extremely low CD4 cell (often called T cell) count in their blood, which in turn makes their immune system extremely weak. This makes them vulnerable to infections like tuberculosis, pneumonia and salmonella. If a person reaches the AIDS stage of the infection, their life expectancy drops dramatically to about three years. Thankfully, modern medicine has helped to reduce the number of HIV-positive cases that develop into AIDS — but we still have a long way to go.
What is HIV/AIDS?
HIV and AIDS are often combined into one term is used to describe the virus and the resulting symptoms. It helps to remember that HIV always comes first. You can be HIV positive without having AIDS; you can’t have AIDS without contracting HIV. There’s no chicken-or-egging here.
AIDS is not just someone suffering from immune deficiency. It is a medical definition based on signs and symptoms. It is caused by HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, which destroys the body's ability to fight off infection and disease.
Now, the Details
What Does HIV Actually Do?
The HIV virus attacks the body’s healthy T cells, which help to fight off infections. It takes over the nucleus of each cell, essentially turning it into a factory to make more HIV cells, which move out into the bloodstream and continue to replicate. By killing off T cells, HIV causes the body to lose its natural disease-fighting mechanisms; it becomes defenseless.
What Are the Symptoms of HIV?
An early HIV infection is often marked by flu-like symptoms, including a headache, fever or rash. These symptoms are the body’s natural immune response to the virus. The T cell count drops very quickly, before leveling out a bit — though not to previous levels. This is the best time to start treatment.
How is HIV Detected?
Today, HIV can be detected with a number of simple saliva or blood tests. A saliva test looks for antibodies, the natural defense the body puts up to fight the infection. But results typically show up 3 to 12 weeks after exposure — a long time to wait for such sensitive news. For a faster turnaround, there’s the nucleic acid test (NAT), which looks directly at the blood. This test is effective 7 to 28 days after exposure.
How is HIV Treated?
There are many ways to treat the different stages of HIV, but they usually involve a combination of two or three antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). One focus of (RED)’s work to date has been to make ARVs available to mothers in developing countries. To avoid passing HIV from mother to child, the World Health Organization recommends a regimen of three drugs during pregnancy and breastfeeding for the mother and a six-week course of a drug called nevirapine for their newborn babies.
These drugs can have side effects, including nausea, headaches, anemia and depression, but if treated, the life expectancy of an HIV positive person is comparable to someone who’s HIV-free. If it isn’t treated, the virus will lower a person’s immunity, causing them to develop AIDS.
DOES HIV ALWAYS PROGRESS TO AIDS?
HIV doesn't always become AIDS, but when a person’s immune system drops below a certain level of T cells, they are considered to have progressed to AIDS. An AIDS patient’s cell count drops to 200 cells/mm3 from a normal count of 500–1500 cells/mm3. In layman’s terms, they’ve acquired (A) an immune (I) deficiency (D) syndrome (S).
When AIDS first caught the world’s attention back in 1981, we didn't have the same detection methods we do now. This meant it was only diagnosed by infections that occur late in the game, like Kaposi's Sarcoma, a rare cancer. Back then, treatment focused on these infections, but by the time patients were showing symptoms, it was usually too late. Late detection meant that patients had so few T cells, they were often near death.
How Do You Prevent the Transmission of HIV?
Thankfully, we've come a long way. Today, there is a big push to educate people around transmission and safe sex — particularly about condom use. (RED) is helping to prevent the spread of HIV in African countries by supporting reproductive health education and youth engagement initiatives, especially among young women. Those at high risk of contracting HIV can also consider pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), taking a daily HIV medication to help fend off the virus.
The conversation around HIV is always changing. While we're far from the crisis of the past, we still have a long way to go to fully end the transmission of HIV. That’s what makes people power so important. Together, we can equip people with the knowledge and tools needed to manage — even extinguish — the virus. Join (RED) in working towards a future free of HIV.