Learn More About HIV and AIDS

Health workers, wearing T-shirts with the slogan ‘Born Free from HIV’, attend the national launch of the Mother-Baby Pack, in the city of Kabwe. © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0130/Christine Nesbitt

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The virus attacks cells in your body that fight off infection and keep the body healthy. When HIV has damaged the immune system, someone is said to have AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. As HIV takes hold the body produces antibodies in an attempt to fight the virus.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for 'acquired immunodeficiency syndrome' and is a surveillance definition based on signs, symptoms, infections, and cancers associated with the deficiency of the immune system that stems from infection with HIV.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

Most people infected with HIV do not know that they have become infected, because they do not feel ill immediately after infection. However, some people may experience “Acute retroviral syndrome” 1-6 weeks after the HIV infection has happened. Symptoms of this syndrome are:

  • fever
  • rash
  • joint pains
  • enlarged lymph nodes

Whether or not HIV infection causes initial symptoms, an HIV-infected person is highly infectious during this initial period and can transmit the virus to another person. The only way to determine whether HIV is present in a person's body is by testing for HIV antibodies or for HIV itself.

When does a person have AIDS?

The term AIDS applies to the most advanced stages of HIV infection. It is defined by the existence of more than 20 opportunistic infections or HIV-related cancers.

How quickly do people infected with HIV develop AIDS?

The length of time can vary widely between individuals. The majority of people infected with HIV, if not treated, develop signs of HIV-related illness within 5-10 years, but the time between infection with HIV and being diagnosed with AIDS can be 10–15 years, sometimes longer.

The information on these pages is adapted from UNAIDS Fast Facts about HIV.

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