They’re two acronyms that always seem to appear side by side — HIV and AIDS. But despite the fact that they often appear next to each other, HIV and AIDS are two very different conditions.


What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The virus predominantly attacks a person’s immune system (hence the term immunodeficiency) and affects their ability to fight off other infections and diseases.

Most importantly, HIV is a virus, just like how the flu is a virus. However, a major difference between HIV and other viruses is that HIV will never go away. Once a person is deemed HIV-positive, they will always be HIV-positive.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS can most easily be thought of as a very advanced stage of HIV. HIV destroys a type of white blood cell in the immune system called a T-helper cell. Once it has destroyed the cell, it makes copies of itself inside these cells. If left untreated, HIV will gradually begin to destroy all of the T-helper cells in a person’s body, leaving them unable to fight off even the smallest/weakest infections and diseases.

A healthy immune system has a CD4 (a type of protein found in T-helper cells) count of 500 to 1,600. Once a person’s CD4 count falls below 200, due to the HIV virus, it’s said that they have now progressed to AIDS.

The Main Differences Between HIV and AIDS

  • HIV is a virus, AIDS is a condition.
  • You can “catch” or contract HIV, however, you can not be infected with AIDS.
  • You can contract HIV quickly (by having unprotected sex with an infected person, sharing needles with an infected person, or by receiving a blood transfusion from an HIV-positive person). However, AIDS takes roughly 10-15 years to develop.  

Winning the Fight Against AIDS

Thanks to antiretroviral medications (medication designed to prevent HIV from copying itself in cells) many people with HIV will die of old age or natural causes unrelated to their status before ever developing AIDS. Today, an HIV-positive person who starts antiretroviral medication immediately after being infected will likely never develop AIDS and has a life expectancy of roughly 70 years old.