It is hard to keep track of the difference between HIV and AIDS because these terms are often used interchangeably in popular culture. Everyone with AIDS has HIV, but not everyone with HIV has AIDS. To end the confusion, read this primer on HIV, AIDS and the distinction between the two.
It’s easiest to think of these two afflictions as existing along a spectrum of a disease:
-A person becomes HIV positive when he or she contracts the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
-This virus is very persistent and, once contracted, the human body has no way to get rid of it. HIV systematically hijacks a person’s own immune cells (CD4 T cells) and uses these cells to make more copies of itself. Once the virus has used a host cell for this purpose, it destroys the host cell.
Imagine HIV as the world’s worst party crasher: She comes over uninvited, makes a million clones of her miserable self and then sets the whole house on fire– then she goes around the neighborhood and repeats this over and over.
-A person progresses from HIV to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) when a critical number of his or her CD4 immune cells have been destroyed.
Stated another way, AIDS is the late stage of the HIV infection.
When we talk about the difference between HIV and AIDS, we refer to a “CD4 T cell” count or “CD4 count.” When the CD4 count falls below 200 cells, a person technically has “AIDS.”
What is so important about the CD4 count?
Below the 200-cell threshold, a critical mass of immunity is lost, making people more susceptible to “opportunistic infections” like atypical pneumonia or Kaposi’s sarcoma (diseases that do not occur in normal, healthy immune systems). People can also be considered to have AIDS if they contract one of these opportunistic infections at any stage of HIV, regardless of their CD4 count.
While still a life-altering diagnosis, the good news about HIV is that we have come a long way since 1981.
Many of our current drug regimens are aimed at keeping a person’s CD4 count above this critical 200-cell threshold by attacking the HIV virus itself and drastically slowing its progression. In today’s world of HIV management, many people with HIV will never develop AIDs.
It is important to know that HIV can be passed along from person to person at any stage. According to the CDC, one in seven people with HIV are unaware of their infection. Current US guidelines recommend one-time HIV testing for everyone ages 13 to 64, and more frequent testing for high-risk groups.
TapGenes Take Away: Learn about the difference between HIV and AIDs using this primer.
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