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What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?

Find out more about the difference between HIV and AIDS

Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in health

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HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that attacks and weakens the body’s immune system (the body’s disease fighting system). HIV makes it difficult for your body to fight against infections and cancers that it would normally be able to fight off.

If a HIV positive person does not get proper treatment, the virus may progress to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). AIDS is an umbrella term for many different opportunistic infections and cancers that can occur from having a weakened immune system due to the HIV virus.

In 2015, there were 485 new diagnoses of HIV in Ireland. This is an increase of 30% compared to 2014 figures. 

How is HIV transmitted?

  • The virus is passed through bodily fluids. This means that blood, semen, women’s vaginal liquids, breast milk and secretions from the anus can all carry the virus.
  • You can become infected with HIV from sex (vaginal, anal or oral) without using a condom.
  • You can also become infected with HIV from infected blood and blood products and by sharing needles, syringes or other injecting equipment that hasn’t been properly sterilised.  A woman with HIV can pass the virus to her baby during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. However, nowadays doctors can prevent the baby becoming HIV positive by giving the mother special treatment before, during and after delivery.
  • You cannot become infected with HIV by receiving or donating blood, as all donated blood is screened.
  • You cannot become infected with HIV from hugging, kissing, massage or from toilet seats. You also cannot get it by sharing cutlery/cups or swimming in the same pool as a person with HIV.

Check out our myths and facts about how HIV is transmitted and treated.

What are the symptoms?

  • You need to have a blood test to find out if you’ve are HIV positive. It can take three or four months after initial exposure to HIV for a HIV test to show positive. Therefore if the risk of being infected with HIV is strong, the doctor will recommend that you have another blood test at three months.
  • It takes seven to ten years for many HIV positive people to show symptoms of the illness. Early symptoms can include swollen lymph glands in the throat, armpits and groin, fever, headaches, tiredness and muscle pain.
  • If you are HIV positive you might be healthy for years, but can still pass the virus to other people.

There are four stages of an untreated HIV infection:

  • Stage I – Infection. This is when the person first develops the virus.
  • Stage 2 – Asymptomatic. During this stage, a person may feel well even though HIV is actually weakening their immune system.
  • Stage 3 – Symptomatic.  Once the immune system has become weakened, a person develops symptoms of HIV such as tiredness, weight loss, thrush, stomach problems and mouth ulcers.
  • Stage 4 – Progression to AIDS. Once a person’s immune system has become extremely weakened and they have developed certain infection/s, they will be diagnosed with AIDS.

A condom in a jeans pocket.
Always carry one.

What treatment can you get?

  • There is no cure for HIV and AIDS, but there is treatment available that helps to slow down the progress of HIV.  This treatment is called HAART (Highly Active Retroviral Therapy) or ‘the cocktail’. It works to stop the virus spreading within your body and it  requires keeping to a very strict medication schedule.
  • You will generally attend a specialist HIV clinic every three months or so to get testing done and your treatment monitored. They will also be able to advise you on safer sex and other practicalities of living with HIV. You can also get emotional support from hospital social workers and HIV organisations.
  • If you are pregnant and HIV positive, you can also receive treatment during pregnancy and labour that will help to prevent the risk of your baby being infected by the virus. You need to talk to your doctor about the available options. Your partner and recent partners should also be tested.

How can you avoid becoming infected with HIV and AIDS?

  • Always use condoms during vaginal sex, anal sex and oral sex performed on a penis, especially with new partners.  Use dental dams for oral sex performed on a vagina or anus. Don’t share sex toys. Make sure that both you and your partner are tested for sexually transmitted infections before deciding to stop using condoms.
  • If you take drugs involving injections, never share needles with others and disinfect needles before using them. Check out Merchant's Quay's safer injecting guide here.
  • Avoid sex if you or your partner have sores, raw skin or blisters around the vagina, anus (bum) or penis.
  • Go to your local A&E or STI clinic for Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) if you know you have been exposed to the virus. This medicine must be taken within 72 hours of exposure. You must complete the full course of medicine.
  • You can also take a drug called PrEP, which taken once a day can prevent infection if exposed to the virus.
  • It's important to remember that in the developed world, many people who are HIV positive now live to a ripe old age thanks to modern treatment.

Did you know you can test yourself at home for STIs? Get a full list of free STI testing clinics here. Testing is painless, quick, and totally worth it. Check out our guide to getting tested here.

Remember: The age of sexual consent in Ireland is 17. If you're over 16, you can consent to medical treatment including any treatment or tests needed.

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Published March 22nd, 2013
Last updated June 29th, 2018
Tags stis sexual health hiv sexually transmitted infections aids
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