Sexual health

A Medical Perspective: The difference between HIV and AIDS and some common misconceptions

December 1, 2022
Lizzie Hayes

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus that attacks the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off other infections and diseases. HIV is the name of the virus that causes AIDS. A person may develop AIDS if their immune system has been badly damaged by the HIV virus.  

AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is a term for illnesses and infections that develop when your immune system can’t fight of bacteria and other viruses the way it normally does, due to damage caused by HIV.  

Once someone has the HIV virus in their body it’s not possible to get rid of it; HIV will stay with someone for the rest of their life. This is what people mean when they say ‘there is no cure for HIV’.  

Even though this is technically true, there are still lots of very good treatments that mean most people with the virus can live a long, normal and healthy life. If used correctly, the drugs keep the HIV virus at a very low level and stop it from attacking the immune system. Sometimes the level of virus in the body can be so low that it’s not detected with normal testing! If the virus has been undetectable for 6 months or more, it also means you can’t pass it on during sex.

This means that most people who are infected with HIV and manage to get an early diagnosis and have access to treatment will not develop AIDS or any AIDS-related illnesses.  

HIV testing is a vital step for an early diagnosis

1 in 16 people living with HIV in the UK don’t know they’re infected. Many people can have a flu-like illness in the first few weeks after being infected with HIV, but the symptoms often go away. Lots of people won’t experience any other symptoms for the first few months or even years after they become infected. But the virus will stay in the body and can cause lots of damage to the immune system during this time. This is why it’s really important to get tested for HIV regularly. By getting tested and detecting the virus early on, you can take medication that stops it from causing you or your partners any damage. You can access HIV screening tests through Fertifa by speaking to your care advisor, or you can also get HIV and other STI screening tests from your local sexual health clinic.  

The virus can spread via unprotected sex, sharing needles and during breastfeeding, birth and pregnancy

The virus can be found in the bodily fluids of anyone who is infected with HIV. These fluids include semen, vaginal and anal fluids, blood, and breast milk. HIV is spread when the bodily fluids of an infected person come into contact with another person. The most common way this happens is though sex (vaginal, oral, or anal) without a condom. HIV can also be spread by sharing needles or from a parent to baby during pregnancy, the birth or breastfeeding.  

There are several ways to prevent HIV spreading, but the most effective is using a condom during sex, especially if your partner is positive or if you or your partner have not had a STI test recently. If you have sex without a condom, you should have an HIV test after each new partner or if you have any symptoms. It’s important to get checked regularly not just for HIV but other STIs too!  

There are also medications that can be taken to help prevent the spread of HIV. You should speak to a medical professional if you are at risk of being infected by HIV (for example if your partner is positive) and you want to find out if these medications could work for you.  

It’s also especially important to get tested if you are pregnant, to make sure the virus is not passed on to the baby at any stage. All pregnant people in the UK are offered HIV testing early in the pregnancy and this is something we offer all of our patients at Fertifa too.

What to do if you’re worried

If you know you’ve been exposed to HIV, emergency medication called PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) might stop the virus from infecting you. The medication must be started within 72 hours of being exposed to the virus for it to work, but it’s best to start within 24 hours. It has to be taken every day for a month. You can get PEP from sexual health clinics and A&E departments.  

If you’re worried about having HIV, or think there’s a chance you might have it, you should seek medical advice and get tested as soon as possible. Remember, the earlier you start treatment the less likely it is you’ll develop AIDS and the easier it is to keep the virus under control.  

If the test does come back positive, you’ll be offered medication and will be given a care plan to help you live a normal and healthy life.

Get in contact with your Fertifa care advisor if you want to talk more about safe sex practices, how to access HIV test kits or would like to speak with one of our sexual health nurses. If it’s an emergency, you should contact your local sexual health clinic or call 111 as soon as possible.