What’s the Difference Between HIV and AIDS?

What’s the Difference Between HIV and AIDS?

Cause and Effect

The acronym HIV stands for “human immunodeficiency virus.” Viruses are small infectious organisms that reproduce by invading the cells of living plants and animals. HIV specifically attacks the CD4 cells (T-cells) in a human body’s immune system, which normally help fight off bodily infections. Unlike some other viruses, HIV can never be completely eliminated, even with aggressive treatment. If left untreated the virus drastically reduces the number of CD4 cells in a person’s body. This makes them more susceptible to infectious diseases and infection-related cancers, which are made worse by the victim’s weakened immune system.

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the final stage of HIV infection, a term used to refer to the set of symptoms a patient is diagnosed with due to the HIV virus. People with AIDS have such poor immune systems that they exhibit a varying number of illnesses and diseases, referred to as “opportunistic infections.”

Transmission and Stages of Infection

The AIDS condition is not transferrable, but the virus itself can be transmitted to a new host. HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids, specifically blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids and breast milk. One of these fluids must somehow come into contact with mucous membrane, damaged tissue or be directly injected into the body for transmission to occur. As a result, HIV is most commonly spread through unprotected sex or sharing needles, though it can also be transferred from mother to child during pregnancy.

Without proper treatment, HIV advances through three stages.

  • Stage 1 is referred to as Acute HIV Infection. Two to four weeks after infection, some patients develop severe flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, sore throat and muscle pains. This is the body’s natural response to the HIV infection and is referred to as “acute retroviral syndrome” (ARS) or the “primary HIV infection.” Detecting and starting treatment at this stage can have significant benefits to your immediate and future health. Patients in the acute stage are also at a high risk of transmitting HIV to others and should take particular care to reduce these chances.
  • Stage 2 is the Clinical Latency People in this stage experience few if any symptoms, which is why it is often referred to as “asymptomatic HIV infection.” During this stage, the virus slows down its rate of reproduction and can remain dormant in a patient’s system for up to 10 years. The virus is still transmittable, but transmission risk is greatly reduced. With proper treatment, it’s possible to keep HIV in check and live within the clinical latency stage for decades.
  • Stage 3 of HIV infection is diagnosable AIDS. A healthy person’s immune system contains anywhere between 500 and 1,699 CD4 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (cells/mm3). When the number of your CD4 cells falls below 200 cells/mm3 you are considered to have progressed to AIDS. Without proper treatment, people with AIDS typically survive only three years before succumbing to one or more opportunistic infections.


The medicine used to treat and prevent the spread of the HIV virus is referred to as anti-retroviral therapy (ART). ART uses antiviral drugs to reduce the amount of the virus in blood and bodily fluids, minimizing the damage it causes to bodily cells and lowering your chances of transmitting it to another person. While HIV is currently incurable, ART drugs help patients lead healthier lives and are the reason why the annual number of deaths attributed to AIDS has dropped significantly.

Patients with AIDS often have to take medication in addition to ART in order to manage opportunistic infections. Managing these sicknesses can prove even more difficult for someone who is not receiving proper HIV treatment.

Comprehensive Health Services in Texas

St. Hope Foundation is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) community healthcare organization that was established in 1999. As a comprehensive Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), St. Hope offers a full range medical, prevention and behavioral health services on-site. Contact us today for more information or visit one of our several locations.

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Rodney Goodie is founder and chief executive officer of St. Hope Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to medical care, pharmacy, clinical research and dental care.

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