HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus compromises the body’s ability to handle disease and causes AIDS. This is a slow process, and positive people may not have symptoms for over a decade.

AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is related to HIV, but they are not one in the same. A person has AIDS only in the final stages of HIV, after the immune system becomes unable to defend itself against foreign invaders like bacteria, other viruses, and fungi, and allows for the development of certain cancers.

HIV progresses to AIDS at different speeds.  Factors which may lead one person to develop AIDS quicker than another include an immune system that is genetically more vulnerable and the use of drugs such as methamphetamine.  Antiretroviral medication can delay the progression of the disease dramatically. 

In the period between infection and an AIDS diagnosis, people with HIV may show no outward signs of infection, or they may experience some symptoms while their immune systems aren’t severely compromised.

A person with HIV receives an AIDS diagnosis when the body’s CD4 cell count – the number of key immune cells in a cubic millimeter of blood – drops below 200, or if he or she has an opportunistic infection or HIV-related cancer.

The Symptoms of HIV: 

HIV infection has spread so far so fast in part because it can lack symptoms for many years. When HIV emerges from latency – the period when someone with HIV shows no sign of it – symptoms can include:

  • Dry, flaky skin
  • Persistent tiredness
  • Fever that comes and goes
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than a week
  • Heavy night sweats
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the armpits, groin or neck
  • White spots on the tongue, mouth or throat
  • Symptoms specific to infection of certain areas of the body, such as headaches for the brain and cough for the lungs

Having these symptoms doesn’t mean a person has HIV or AIDS. Many illnesses have symptoms like these. The only way to know if you’re positive is to get tested.

Opportunistic Infections (OI's):

As HIV progresses, the immune system becomes less able to defend the body against common bacteria and viruses. These infections are called “opportunistic” because they take advantage of the weakened immune system.

People with HIV are more likely to develop certain illnesses – pneumonia, fungal infections and some cancers, for example – than others.