HIV stands for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and is the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).  It is a virus that attacks the immune system. 

Over time, and without treatment, HIV gradually destroys the body's defenses against disease, leaving it vulnerable to many infections and cancers that do not normally develop.

AIDS is a late stage of HIV disease.  By the time of an AIDS diagnosis, HIV has already seriously damaged the body's immune system.  Often, a person living with AIDS will already have had life-threatening infections or cancers. 

With proper treatment, some people now living with HIV may never develop AIDS and can live a normal life span.  Studies suggest that starting treatment early in the course of infection can significantly improve long-term treatment success. 

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?

HIV is a virus. AIDS is a condition brought about by the virus HIV. You can have HIV without having AIDS.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV can be transmitted from an infected person to another through:

  • Blood (including menstrual blood)
  • Semen
  • Vaginal secretions
  • Breast milk

Activities That Allow HIV Transmission

  • Unprotected sexual contact
  • Direct blood contact, particularly through sharing injection drug needles.
  • Infections due to blood transfusions, accidents in health care settings or certain blood products are possible, although they are extremely rare nowadays in the United States.
  • Mother to baby (before or during birth, or through breast milk)

What are the symptoms for AIDS?

There are no common symptoms for individuals diagnosed with AIDS. When immune system damage is more severe, people may experience opportunistic infections (called "opportunistic" because they are caused by organisms which cannot induce disease in people with normal immune systems, but take the "opportunity" to flourish in people with HIV). Most of these more severe infections, diseases, and symptoms fall under the Centers for Disease Control's definition of AIDS. The median time to receive an AIDS diagnosis among those infected with HIV is 7-10 years.

Is there a cure for HIV/AIDS?

Although there have been many advances in HIV treatments and therapies in recent years that have dramatically improved the quality of life and life expectancy of persons with HIV/AIDS in the US and other developed countries, there is, as of yet, no cure.



• Kaiser Family Foundation, Greater Than AIDS,
• San Francisco Department of Public Health,  AIDS Office, HIV Prevention Section,

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