Understanding HIV and AIDS

Written by
Dr. Vasantha K S
and medically reviewed by iCliniq medical review team.

Published on Nov 27, 2017 and last reviewed on Jan 24, 2019   -  3 min read



This article explains the difference between HIV and AIDS and how you can protect yourself from this life-threatening infection.

Understanding HIV and AIDS

What Is HIV?

HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system by destroying a type of white blood cells (called as CD4 cells) by making copies of itself inside these cells. As the primary function of these CD4 cells is to defend the body from illnesses, it gets progressively harder for a person affected by this virus to fight off even minor infections and diseases, let alone cancer.

HIV Fast Facts

  • HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus.
  • It is a virus that weakens the immune system.
  • There is currently no known cure for HIV. Once you get the virus, you have it in your body for a lifetime.
  • But, it can be well-controlled with antiretroviral therapy (ART).
  • HIV can spread via contact with blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, vaginal fluid, anal fluid, or breast milk of an infected individual.
  • HIV does not get transmitted via sweat, saliva, or urine, which means you cannot get HIV by shaking hands, hugging or touching a person with HIV.
  • HIV often spreads during unprotected sex with an infected individual, sharing of needles in drug abusers, or from mother to baby during childbirth or lactation.
  • When HIV infection is left untreated, it can progress to AIDS.

What is AIDS?

AIDS refers to a set of symptoms caused by the HIV virus. To determine if the person has AIDS, the criteria is a CD4 cell count of fewer than 200 cells per mm3. In a normal healthy individual, the same would range between 500 to 1,600 cells. Without treatment, HIV worsens in three stages namely- acute HIV infection, clinical latency, and finally AIDS.

AIDS Fast Facts

  • AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
  • It is the final stage of HIV infection.
  • It manifests as a set of typical symptoms and specific illnesses.
  • It can be prevented by taking the ART properly.
  • If left untreated, it can progress to death in a period of one to three years.

Early Symptoms of HIV

  1. Fevers and chills.
  2. Joint pain.
  3. Fatigue and malaise.
  4. Rashes.
  5. Sore throat.
  6. Night sweats.
  7. Enlarged lymph nodes.
  8. Mouth ulcers.
  9. Rapid weight loss.

Testing for HIV

Research shows that the earlier the HIV is detected, the sooner the ART therapy can be started, and better is the viral load control and hence, the quality of life. So, regular testing for HIV is important. Knowing your HIV status is also necessary to prevent spreading the infection to others.

  • HIV antibodies test (ELISA and Western blot): If you are to be screened for HIV for various purposes (job, blood donation, or after possible low-risk exposure), an ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) is the first test your doctor would order for you. If there is an HIV positive result on the ELISA, your doctor would then order a more sophisticated test such as the western blot test for confirmation. This type of test is accurate only three months after a possible exposure as it takes that long for the immune system to produce enough antibodies at a level that can be detected by the test.

  • Antigen/ antibodies test (Combo test): This test detects not only the antibodies produces by the body in response to the virus, but also the p24 antigen which is a part of the virus itself. So, it is reliable when done one month after the exposure as p24 are present in blood in high concentrations few weeks after exposure.

  • HIV nucleic acid test (RNA PCR): This test detects the actual viral load. It is an expensive test that is not routinely ordered for screening purposes but to detect the rate of replication of the virus in HIV positive persons. This test is reliable as early as from 10 days post-exposure.

Prevention of HIV

  • Apart from sexual abstinence, the only sure way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases including HIV is mutual monogamy (being in a committed relationship).
  • If that is not practical, using a male or female condom correctly every single time is the best method to prevent HIV.
  • Avoid high-risk sexual behavior such as unprotected genital, anal or oral sex with a person whose sexual history you are unsure of.
  • Ensure the use of sterile needles every single time for drug shooting, body piercing, and tattooing.
  • Consider pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) if you are at high risk of being exposed to HIV (homosexuals and commercial sex workers).
  • Take post-exposure prophylaxis within three days after being exposed to HIV infected persons.

For more information consult an HIV AIDS specialist online -->

Last reviewed at:
24 Jan 2019  -  3 min read




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