HIV vs. AIDS: What’s the Difference?

Written by Mary Ellen Ellis | Published on January 13, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on January 13, 2014

HIV vs. AIDS

It can be easy to confuse HIV and AIDS. While they are different diagnoses, they do go hand-in-hand and are often used interchangeably to describe a particular disease. HIV is a virus that can lead to a condition called AIDS.

At one time in history, a diagnosis of HIV or AIDS was considered a death sentence. Thanks to research and the development of new treatments, today, people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS are living long, productive lives.

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HIV is a Virus

HIV is a virus and particular exposure to it can lead to infection. HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The name describes the virus: it infects humans only and it attacks the immune system, rendering it deficient and unable to work as effectively as it should.  

Unlike many other viruses, our immune systems are unable to attack and completely clear out HIV. No one yet understands why we cannot defeat HIV, but medications can control it very successfully.

AIDS is a Condition

While HIV is a virus that may cause an infection, AIDS is a condition or a syndrome. Being infected with HIV can lead to having AIDS, which stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.

AIDS develops when HIV has caused serious damage to the immune system. It is a complex condition with symptoms that vary by individual. Symptoms of AIDS are related to the infections a person develops as a result of having a damaged immune system, unable to fight infections as it would in a healthy individual. These may include tuberculosis, pneumonia, certain types of cancer, and other infections.

HIV Without AIDS

HIV is a virus and AIDS is the condition it may cause. You can have an HIV infection without acquiring AIDS. In fact, many people with HIV live for years without developing AIDS. Thanks to advances in treatment, you can live longer than ever before with an HIV infection.

While you can have an HIV infection without having AIDS, anyone diagnosed with AIDS already necessarily has HIV. Because there is no cure, the HIV infection never goes away, even if AIDS never develops.

HIV Can Be Transmitted From Person to Person

HIV is a virus, which means that like other viruses, it can be transmitted between people. This is how infection spreads. AIDS, on the other hand, is a condition that is acquired only after a person has contracted the HIV infection.

The HIV virus is transmitted from one person to another through the exchange of bodily fluids. Most commonly, infection is transmitted through unprotected sex or through using contaminated needles. Less commonly, one can become infected through a tainted blood transfusion or a mother can pass the infection to her child during pregnancy.

HIV Does Not Always Produce Symptoms

HIV usually causes flu-like symptoms about two to four weeks after infection. This period of time is short and is called acute infection. The immune system brings the infection under control, leading to the latency period.

The immune system cannot completely eliminate HIV, but it can control it for a long time. During this latent period, which can last for years, an infected person may experience no symptoms at all. Once AIDS has developed, however, the patient will experience many symptoms of the condition.

HIV Infection Can be Diagnosed by a Simple Test

When infected with HIV, your immune system produces antibodies against the virus. A blood or saliva test can detect those antibodies and determine if you have been infected with HIV. This test may be effective only several weeks after infection, though.

Another test, which looks for antigens, proteins produced by the virus, can detect HIV just days after infection. Both tests are accurate and easy to administer.

AIDS Diagnosis Is More Complicated

AIDS is the final stage of the HIV infection, and there are a few factors that determine when a patient’s diagnosis has crossed from HIV latency to AIDS.

Because HIV destroys immune cells called CD4 cells, one part of the AIDS diagnosis contains a count of those cells. When the cells have dropped to a certain level, an HIV patient is considered to have AIDS. Another factor signaling the AIDS virus is the presence of opportunistic infections. This, too, would serve as a determinant for an AIDS diagnosis.

Treatment and Life Expectancy

Once HIV has developed into AIDS, life expectancy drops significantly. It is difficult to repair the damage to the immune system at this point, and infections secondary to HIV are common. These infections are what become fatal for a person with AIDS.

With today’s treatments for the HIV infection, however, someone can live with the virus for years, and even decades before AIDS develops. Even though one can lead a normal and healthy life while undergoing HIV treatment, it is important to understand that you can still pass the infection to someone else. 

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