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What's the difference between HIV and AIDS?

The key difference between HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is that HIV is a transmitted virus, while AIDS is the diagnosed condition when serious damage has been caused to the immune system as a direct result of the HIV virus.

According to one of the leading UK-based HIV & AIDS charities, Avert, as of 2018 there were estimated to be 37.9 million people worldwide living with HIV, 21% of which being unaware of their status. This lack of awareness is due to several factors such as the fear and stigma still attached to the illness discouraging people from getting tested, lack of access to testing and also the lack of symptoms HIV can produce.

The work that charities like Avert have done since the 1980s to de-stigmatise HIV & AIDS has meant an influx in research funding in the 21st century, leading to a drastic improvement in treatment for the illness. Medication known as Antiretroviral drugs can halt the replication of the virus and even reduce it to an undetectable level if caught early enough. This means that not only are present day carriers able to live a normal, healthy life, but in certain circumstances even physically unable to put the virus onto others.

More detailed explanations for the differences between HIV and AIDS are as follows:

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

HIV is a virus which infects and destroys white blood cells in the body’s immune system, known as CD4 cells. The CD4 count in a healthy person is around 800 to 1200 cells per ml² of blood, whereas this drops to 500 or under in an infected individual.

There are two types of HIV, known as HIV-1 and HIV-2. HIV-1 is the most common strain (found worldwide) and is highly contagious. HIV-2 is predominantly found in West Africa but has also been reported in Europe, India and South America. This strain is less virulent and takes significantly longer to progress to AIDS than HIV-1.

HIV Stages & Symptoms

  1. In the first 2-6 weeks after infection around 80% of sufferers will develop flu-like symptoms including a raised temperature, sore throat and body rash. These symptoms usually last for around 10 days, during which time individuals are highly infectious. This phase is known as ‘Primary HIV Infection’ (PHI) or ‘Seroconversion Illness’.
  2. After this initial phase, there follows a latency period during which time the individual may experience no further symptoms. This can last from a year all the way up to 10 or more and if untreated means that the CD4 count is continuously decreasing, leaving the individual far more susceptible to everyday infection and illness.

There are currently 4 different tests for HIV: A full blood test, a ‘point of care’ test with results available in minutes, and two types of home-sampling which can either be sent off or tested at home. All of these take a blood and/or saliva sample to test for the presence of HIV antibodies. A full blood test is the most accurate but can only give reliable results 4 weeks after infection.

You can order a full HIV blood test from Prescription Doctor’s online pharmacy. Our tests are dispatched the same day in discreet packaging to ensure your privacy.

Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)

AIDS refers to the most advanced stages of HIV infection and can also be referred to as ‘Late Stage HIV’. If left without treatment, the time between acquiring HIV followed by an AIDS diagnosis is usually between 10-15 years. The most common opportunistic infection affecting people living with AIDS is Tuberculosis, however as the CD4 count decreases, the likelihood of contracting illnesses and infections such as bacterial skin infections, pneumonia, meningitis, lymphoma and other cancers increase exponentially.


HIV is primarily transmitted via unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, however it can also be transmitted from mother to child (during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding) or via contaminated blood that either perforates the skin’s membrane or has direct exposure to mucous membranes or open wounds.

Common misconceptions about HIV are that it can be transmitted through physical contact, saliva or even urine. This is not true, and multiple organisations including the Terrence Higgins Trust and Aidsmap work tirelessly to destigmatise these preconceptions surrounding the illness.


Antiretroviral Therapy is used to treat HIV and works by limiting viral replication. HIV can develop resistance to a single form of medication easily, meaning that individuals usually need to take a combination of 2 or 3 different antiretroviral medications to prevent further infection. These usually come in the form of an oral pill and need to be taken every day.

In cases where individuals may have been recently exposed to HIV, a treatment called Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) is available. While regular tests for HIV may not be able to detect the HIV antibodies until 4 weeks after exposure, for those who believe they are immediately at risk the PEP treatment can be taken within 72 hours of exposure. The medication now used for PEP is a single tablet called Truvada and two tablets of raltegravir. This treatment must be taken for 28 days and can be extremely effective when taken properly.

There is also a medication option for at-risk individuals wanting to prevent HIV contraction, known as PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis). There a few different ways that PrEP can be taken depending on when you are expecting to be exposed but is another highly effective method of avoiding the contraction of HIV when taken correctly.




Authored & Reviewed By

Mohamed Imran Lakhi

MPharm - Lead Pharmacist
Imran Lakhi is the superintendent pharmacist and founder at Prescription Doctor. He has been at the core of our team.

Published on: 28/01/2020 Reviewed on: 15/01/2024
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