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HIV 101: Let’s Start With the Basics

In the realm of social media, it’s common to see tons of spelling, factual, and informational inaccuracies. A common one is the mistaking of the acronym HIV with the acronym AIDS.

And, unfortunately, despite more than 30 years of information available about the HIV virus, many people still think that the two acronyms are interchangeable, or simply don’t even know that HIV is a virus—opting to just use the term AIDS, which is a medical diagnosis.

Stigma continues to fester throughout many communities when discussing HIV simply because we have been unable to discuss this subject outside of the context of sexual deviance—nor have we had the backing of community spaces taking on this subject matter.

So, here’s a bit of a beginner’s course, or refresher course, in case you need to help a friend who confuses HIV for AIDS, or vice versa.

These facts are all according to

HIV – Human Immunodeficiency Virus

This is the most basic place to start. The HIV virus attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells (T cells), which help the immune system fight off infections. Untreated, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells (T cells) in the body, making the person more likely to get other infections or infection-related cancers. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. These opportunistic infections or cancers take advantage of a very weak immune system and signal that the person has AIDS, the last stage of HIV infection.

There is currently no cure for HIV. However, there are numerous treatment options available to those who are found to be HIV-positive. The medicine used to treat HIV is called antiretroviral therapy or ART. If taken the right way, every day, this medicine can dramatically prolong the lives of many people infected with HIV, keep them healthy, and greatly lower their chances of infecting others.

AIDS – Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome

AIDS is a medical diagnosis. This is the stage of HIV infection that occurs when your immune system is badly damaged and you become vulnerable to opportunistic infections. When the number of your CD4 cells falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (200 cells/mm3), you are considered to have progressed to AIDS. (In someone with a healthy immune system, CD4 counts are between 500 and 1,600 cells/mm3.) You are also considered to have progressed to AIDS if you develop one or more opportunistic illnesses, regardless of your CD4 count.

How HIV is transmitted

You can get or transmit HIV only through specific activities. Most commonly, people get or transmit HIV through sexual intercourse and exposure to HIV-infected blood through needle or syringe use.

Only certain body fluids—blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk—from a person who has HIV can transmit the virus. These fluids must come in contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue, or be directly injected into the bloodstream (from a needle or syringe) for transmission to occur. Mucous membranes are found inside the rectum, vagina, penis, and mouth.

Prevention of HIV includes the use of condoms when having intercourse or the use of clean needles if doing intravenous drugs. Taking PrEP (or pre-exposure prophylaxis, also known by the brand name medication Truvada) is also an option to be used with other safer sex methods.

Treatment Options – Positive or Negative

The great thing about the world of medicine is that advancements over the past 30 years have now made HIV manageable and have allowed the virus to be classified as a chronic illness for those able to receive treatment. Even for those who are HIV-negative, new treatment exists in a one-a-day pill form that helps against the contracting of the virus.

ART – Antiretroviral Therapy

ART is a treatment option for those who are HIV-positive and looking to slow the progression of the virus. ART can keep you healthy for many years, and greatly reduces your chances of transmitting HIV to your partner(s) if taken consistently and correctly. ART reduces the amount of virus (or viral load) in your blood and body fluids. ART is recommended for all people living with HIV, regardless of how long they’ve had the virus or how healthy they are.


Pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) is when HIV-negative people who are at risk for HIV take HIV medicines daily to lower their chances of getting infected. A combination of two HIV medicines (tenofovir and emtricitabine), sold under the brand name Truvada, is approved for daily use as PrEP to help prevent an HIV-negative person from getting HIV from a sexual or injection-drug-using partner who’s HIV-positive. Studies have shown that PrEP is highly effective for preventing HIV if it is used as prescribed. PrEP is much less effective when it is not taken consistently.

Daily PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90%. Among people who inject drugs, it reduces the risk by more than 70%. Your risk of getting HIV from sex can be even lower if you combine PrEP with condoms and other prevention methods.