HIV vs. AIDS

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Types of HIV Testing

There are three main types of HIV tests: antibody tests, RNA (viral load) tests, and a combination test that detects both antibodies and viral protein called p24 (antibody-antigen test, or HIV Ab-Ag test). All tests are designed to detect HIV-1, which is the type of HIV in the United States. Some antibody tests and the combination test can also detect HIV-2 infections, which are usually limited to West Africa. No test is perfect; tests may be falsely positive or falsely negative or impossible to interpret (indeterminate, see below).

Positive test results are reportable to the health department in all 50 states and include the patient's name. This information is then reported to the CDC (without names) so that the epidemiology and infection spread rates can be monitored. The names sent to the state remain confidential and will not be reported to employers, family members, or other such people. Some states allow anonymous testing in which the patient's name is not recorded.

HIV vs. AIDS facts

  • The difference between HIV and AIDS is in the strict definition of both words. For example, HIV (also termed human immunodeficiency virus) is defined as a virus that can be transmitted from person to person and damages the human immune system.
  • AIDS (also termed acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is defined as a syndrome or condition that results when HIV damages the human immune system so severely that the person becomes very susceptible to additional problems, including infections like pneumonia or tuberculosis and/or the development of cancers like Kaposi's sarcoma.
  • HIV and AIDS are similar only because both of them involve the human immunodeficiency virus. Confusion exists between these two words because both the public and medical literature have had a tendency to use HIV and AIDS interchangeably. Strictly speaking, the use of them interchangeably is incorrect. Consequently, for clarity, HIV should only refer to human immunodeficiency viruses and AIDS should only refer to the relatively end-stage syndromes that develop after HIV has extensively damaged a person's immune system. For example, a person can have HIV, or better termed, an infection caused by human immunodeficiency virus but not have AIDS. A person can have AIDS caused by human immunodeficiency virus, but AIDS is a syndrome (that is, set of signs and symptoms that appear together and characterizes a disease or medical condition), and AIDS is not the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

What are causes and risk factors for HIV and AIDS?

The cause for HIV infection is the human immunodeficiency virus; it is spread by person-to-person contact mainly by body fluids during unprotected sex and/or the use of needles contaminated with the human immunodeficiency virus. Other less frequent ways HIV is transmitted are through contaminated blood or tissue during a transfusion or transplant, to a fetus by an infected mother, or to an infant via breast milk from an infected mother.

The cause of AIDS is infection by human immunodeficiency viruses that eventually damage the person's immune system so severely that the person develops additional medical problems like opportunistic infections or cancers.

The risk factors for HIV and AIDS include

  • unprotected sexual contact,
  • using contaminated needles,
  • mother-to-child transmission,
  • having a large number of sexual partners,
  • a history of sexually transmitted diseases, and
  • receipt of blood transfusions before 1985 in the U.S.

However, AIDS has an additional risk factor; it is increased in people who do not treat HIV infection or live in areas where there is an epidemic or endemic presence of HIV infections without good treatment centers available (for example, in sub-Saharan Africa).

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/31/2017

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