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difference between hiv and aids

By: RSC Editorial Team

September 7, 2022

The Difference Between HIV and AIDS

When discussing HIV, many people use the terms HIV and AIDS interchangeably. While these terms relate to one another, they don't mean the same thing.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a retrovirus that attacks an infected person's immune system. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) occurs after a period without treatment when the person's immune system becomes severely compromised by HIV. 

In this article, we'll explain the difference between HIV and AIDS, HIV diagnosis, treatment, and life expectancy.

Understanding HIV

More than one million people live with HIV in the U.S. today, with tens of thousands of new cases annually. The virus infects a person by changing their DNA, so no cure currently exists; however, treatments help people living with HIV lead relatively healthy, normal lives.

When HIV enters the body, it alters the DNA and copies itself to create more HIV cells. HIV cells attack white blood cells called CD4 cells or helper T cells. As the white blood cell count drops, the body becomes increasingly vulnerable to “opportunistic” infections a healthy immune system would typically fight off.

When first infected, the body displays flu-like symptoms, like fever and achiness. This symptomatic period precedes years of zero symptoms, but the virus continues to attack and destroy white blood cells even though the person feels fine. If left untreated, HIV leads to AIDS.

What Is AIDS?

When discussing the difference between HIV and AIDS, remember that AIDS, also called stage three HIV by healthcare professionals, names a condition, not a particular virus or infection. For a physician to diagnose AIDS, they must confirm that:

1.  The patient has HIV

2.  The patient has either an AIDS-defining illness or a CD4 cell count of less than 200 per cubic millimeter of blood

What Is the Relationship Between HIV and AIDS?

While HIV refers to the virus that infects the body, AIDS refers to the condition that occurs when the virus goes unchecked. AIDS typically develops about ten years after a person becomes infected with HIV. The untreated virus lowers the body's white blood cell count until the immune system can no longer fight off infections like pneumonia.

Symptoms of AIDS include:

  • Night sweats
  • Significant weight loss
  • Recurrent fever
  • Oral, genital, or anal sores

Are AIDS and HIV the Same Thing?

HIV and AIDS have a direct relationship, but they are not the same thing. Not every person with HIV will develop AIDS. Medical advances in HIV treatments have vastly improved the life expectancy of people living with the virus to the point that most patients receiving treatment live relatively normal lives.

One common misrepresentation of the difference between HIV and AIDS comes from the phrase “catching AIDS.” A person can contract or “catch” HIV from an infected partner during sexual contact or through other means, but a person cannot contract AIDS because it results from HIV. That said, if both partners have untreated HIV, they can increase each other's viral load through unprotected sex, which means they may pass more of the virus onto one another. 

In addition to sexual contact, a person can contract HIV:

  • From sharing injecting tools like needles
  • From mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding

HIV passes from person to person via vaginal fluid, semen, breast milk, and blood. A person cannot contract HIV from saliva, urine, or sweat.   

Do All AIDS Patients Have HIV?

Yes, a person can only develop AIDS if they have HIV. AIDS is not a separate condition; instead, it is a stage in the virus's progression as it continuously destroys CD4 cells. 


People receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART) treatment may never develop AIDS. Antiretroviral drugs stop the virus from replicating, which reduces the person's viral load, prevents the destruction of white blood cells, and helps lower transmission risks. Without treatment, HIV progresses through three stages:

1.  Stage one, acute HIV, presents with mild symptoms that resemble the flu and go away within a month. 

2.  Stage two, clinical latency, typically marks a symptom-free period that may last years.

3.  Stage three, AIDS, occurs after years without antiretroviral therapy treatment.

Diagnosis, Treatment, and Life Expectancy

Diagnosing HIV only requires a simple test, but hundreds of thousands of people living with HIV in the U.S. don't know they have it. Anyone who suspects they may have HIV should get tested to prevent the progression to severe immunodeficiency.

Diagnosing HIV and AIDS

If you're unsure if you should get tested, consider your risk. People at risk of HIV infection include anyone who engages in risky behaviors, like having unprotected sex or sharing needles, or does not have access to preventative care. If you want to get tested but don't know where to go, consider same-day STD testing through Rapid STD Testing: we offer a 10-panel STD test that tests for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

While an HIV diagnosis only requires a simple test, an AIDS diagnosis has more specific requirements. As we touched on above, diagnosing AIDS requires two things:

1.  A positive HIV test, and

2.  Either the presence of AIDS-related illnesses or a CD4 count of fewer than 200

Treating HIV and AIDS

To treat HIV, physicians prescribe ART drugs. Many antiretroviral medications exist, and doctors help patients find the ideal mixes for their bodies. 

People at risk of exposure can take post-exposure prophylaxis drugs within 72 hours of contact with the virus. These medications may stop the infection before it can enter the body's DNA. 

You can also reduce your risk of HIV infection by:

  • Using condoms and other barrier methods
  • Using lubrication during sex
  • Not sharing injecting tools

If your partner is HIV positive, you can take pre-exposure prophylaxis medication to lower your risk of contracting the virus. 

Life Expectancy

Modern ART medications have significantly improved the life expectancy of people with HIV and AIDS. These drugs don't get rid of the virus, but they can stop it from causing any further damage to the body's immune system for years or decades.

Don't Wait: Get Tested for HIV Today

Now that you understand the difference between HIV and AIDS, learn about myths and misconceptions about HIV or learn about celebrities with HIV. An HIV diagnosis doesn't mean what it once did. You can still live a normal, happy, and healthy life through proper treatment. 

Don't let an infection like HIV go undetected in your body. Get a rapid STD test and accurate, confidential results from Rapid STD Testing today at one of our 2,500 clinics nationwide.


Get Tested for STDs and HIV Privately and Conveniently

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By: RSC Editorial Team
September 7, 2022

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