If I have HIV do I have AIDS?
During the 1980s, there was an HIV epidemic. The virus spread quickly because it was poorly understood by scientists and doctors. Many people who contracted the virus ended up developing AIDS and dying.
Today, HIV is much better understood and can be very well treated when diagnosed early enough. However, there are still many fears and misconceptions surrounding a diagnosis of HIV – a common one is that getting HIV means you will get AIDS, which is not true. Read on to find out why.
The difference between HIV and AIDS
The first thing to know is that HIV and AIDS are not the same thing.
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. This is the virus itself. It’s carried in the bodily fluids of an infected person and can be passed on to other people, usually during unprotected sex or when sharing needles. HIV replicates in the system and attacks the immune system over time. Although the virus has no cure, it can be managed very well with daily medication.
AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. AIDS isn’t something that can be passed from one person to another. Rather, it’s a late stage of HIV infection that happens when the virus hasn’t been properly treated and has caused irreversible damage to the immune system. People who have AIDS will be extremely vulnerable to life-threatening infections and illnesses.
Does everybody with HIV get AIDS?
No, not everybody who has HIV will develop AIDS. In fact, it’s increasingly uncommon for people to develop and die from AIDS in the UK. In 2017, there were an estimated 101,600 Brits living with HIV, and only 428 AIDS-related deaths.
The reason for this is that testing and treatment for HIV has improved hugely in the years since the epidemic of the 1980s. Today it’s much easier to get tested for HIV and – in the event of a positive result – start receiving effective treatment.
How does HIV lead to AIDS?
Left untreated, HIV will progress to AIDS – usually in about eight to 10 years. This happens because the virus destroys important white blood cells (known as CD4 cells or T-cells) which help your body fight disease. As the virus destroys these cells, your immune system weakens until you’re unable to fight off infection (3).
If you’re diagnosed with HIV early enough you can start taking treatment that will prevent it from progressing. Effective treatment will also prevent the virus from being passed on to other people e.g. during sex.
Can you have AIDS without having HIV?
No, you can’t have AIDS without having HIV.
However, it’s possible for infection to progress to a late stage before you realise you have the virus. In its early stages, HIV doesn’t tend to cause symptoms aside from a short flu-like illness two to six weeks after infection.
Who is most at risk of AIDS?
You’ll be at risk of AIDS if you’re high-risk for HIV and you’re not in the habit of getting tested for HIV regularly.
People high risk for HIV include:
- Anyone with a current or previous partner who has HIV
- Men who have unprotected sex with men
- Drug users who inject drugs and share equipment with other people
If you’re in a high-risk group you should get tested regularly to ensure that, if you do get HIV, you’re diagnosed early.
The Terrence Higgins Trust recommends that all people who are sexually active should get tested at least once a year for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
If you’re in a high-risk group and regularly having unprotected sex with new or casual partners, you should get tested every three months.
Is HIV curable?
Unfortunately, no. There’s no cure for HIV and the damage it causes to the immune system can’t be reversed.
However, when diagnosed early enough, and when treated effectively, HIV can be very easily managed. People with well-managed HIV can expect to live a normal healthy life, with a lifespan comparable to people who don’t have HIV.
An emergency treatment called post-exposure prophylaxis is also available, however this can only be used in the first 72 hours after exposure e.g. after unprotected sex.
Management of HIV and AIDS
If you get a diagnosis of HIV you’ll probably be advised to start treatment right away. Most people with HIV need to take medication known as antiretrovirals every day. You’ll also need to get regular tests to check your CD4 count, as this is a measure of how healthy your immune system is.
The aim of HIV treatment is to reach an undetectable viral load. This means that your antiretroviral treatment has prevented the virus from replicating in your system, and that the amount of virus currently in your blood is so low it can’t be picked up in a test.
If you’re newly diagnosed with HIV you should be able to reach an undetectable viral load within six months, provided you’re taking your medication correctly. At this point, you won’t be able to pass the virus on to anybody, which means you don’t have to worry about infecting any sexual partners.
Getting tested for HIV
For people at high risk of HIV, regular testing is really important. Modern HIV treatment is incredibly advanced, but it’s not going to be effective in people whose immune systems have already been irreversibly damaged by the virus.
By getting regular tests you can make sure that – in the event of a diagnosis – it comes early enough that you can start treatment quickly and avoid damage to your immune system that could develop into AIDS.
HIV tests are available from the following places:
- Sexual health and GUM clinics
- Terrence Higgins Trust clinics
- Some GP surgeries
- Some contraception clinics
- Some young people’s clinics
- Drug clinics
- Antenatal clinics (for pregnant women)
- Private clinics