What Is HIV?
“HIV” stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. To understand what that means, let’s break it down:
- H – Human – This particular virus can only infect human beings.
- I – Immunodeficiency – HIV weakens your immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection. A "deficient" immune system can't protect you.
- V – Virus – A virus can only reproduce itself by taking over a cell in the body of its host.
HIV is a lot like other viruses, including those that cause the "flu" or the common cold. But there is an important difference – over time, your immune system can clear most viruses out of your body. That isn't the case with HIV – the human immune system can't seem to get rid of it. That means that once you have HIV, you have it for life.
We know that HIV can hide for long periods of time in the cells of your body and that it attacks a key part of your immune system – your T-cells or CD4 cells. Your body has to have these cells to fight infections and disease, but HIV invades them, uses them to make more copies of itself, and then destroys them.
Over time, HIV can destroy so many of your CD4 cells that your body can't fight infections and diseases anymore. When that happens, HIV infection can lead to AIDS, the final stage of HIV infection.
However, not everyone who has HIV progresses to AIDS. With proper treatment, called “antiretroviral therapy” (ART), you can keep the level of HIV virus in your body low. ART is the use of HIV medicines to fight HIV infection. It involves taking a combination of HIV medicines every day. These HIV medicines can control the virus so that you can live a longer, healthier life and reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others. Before the introduction of ART in the mid-1990s, people with HIV could progress to AIDS in just a few years. Today, a person who is diagnosed with HIV and treated before the disease is far advanced can have a nearly normal life expectancy.
No safe and effective cure for HIV currently exists, but scientists are working hard to find one, and remain hopeful.
What Is AIDS?
“AIDS” stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. To understand what that means, let’s break it down:
- A – Acquired – AIDS is not something you inherit from your parents. You acquire AIDS after birth.
- I – Immuno – Your body's immune system includes all the organs and cells that work to fight off infection or disease.
- D – Deficiency – You get AIDS when your immune system is "deficient," or isn't working the way it should.
- S – Syndrome – A syndrome is a collection of symptoms and signs of disease. AIDS is a syndrome, rather than a single disease, because it is a complex illness with a wide range of complications and symptoms.
As noted above, AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection, and not everyone who has HIV advances to this stage. People at this stage of HIV disease have badly damaged immune systems, which put them at risk for opportunistic infections (OIs).
You are considered to have progressed to AIDS if you have one or more specific OIs, certain cancers, or a very low number of CD4 cells. If you have AIDS, you will need medical intervention and treatment to prevent death.
For more information, see CDC’s HIV/AIDS Basics.
What Should I Do if I Think I Have HIV?
The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. Testing is relatively simple. You can get an HIV test from your doctor or healthcare provider, community health center, Veteran’s health center, Title X family planning clinic, and other locations. There also are FDA-approved HIV home test kits you can use.
One of the easiest ways to find an HIV testing location is to use the HIV Testing & Care Services Locator. Just type in your ZIP code and, within seconds, you will get a list of HIV testing sites near you—including those that offer free HIV testing!
Related Topics on AIDS.gov
Frequently Asked Questions
Do all people with HIV get AIDS?
No. Being diagnosed with HIV does NOT mean a person will also be diagnosed with AIDS. Healthcare professionals diagnose AIDS only when people with HIV disease begin to get severe opportunistic infections or their CD4 counts fall below a certain level. With proper treatment, you can keep the level of HIV virus in your body low. This will prevent HIV from advancing to AIDS and reduce the chances that you will transmit the virus to your sexual partners.
Is there a cure for HIV?
For most people, the answer is no. Most reports of a cure involve HIV-infected people who needed treatment for a cancer that would have killed them otherwise. But these treatments are very risky, even life-threatening, and are used only when the HIV-infected people would have died without them. Antiretroviral therapy (ART), however, can dramatically prolong the lives of many people infected with HIV and lower their chance of infecting others. It is important that people get tested for HIV and know that they are infected early so that medical care and treatment have the greatest effect.
Last revised: 04/29/2014