What’s HIV? What’s AIDS? What’s the difference?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.  It belongs to a group of viruses called Retroviruses, which work by invading the genetic material of cells within your body.  Normally, the body’s immune system would fight off such an infection, but HIV stops this from happening by infecting CD4 cells which are the cells that fight off infection.

Over time, people living with the HIV virus (commonly referred to as HIV positive) are likely to develop different infections and cancers that the body would otherwise normally be able to fight.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is what happens as a result of a compromised immune system, when your body is no longer able to protect itself against infections which a normal immune system would otherwise be able to control.

The resulting collection of symptoms from these infections and diseases is called a syndrome; when someone exhibits symptoms of one or more of these infections, they are considered to have AIDS.  Different people with AIDS may experience different clinical problems, depending on which of the specific opportunistic infections they develop.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is present in the body in blood, semen, rectal and vaginal fluids.  It can only be transmitted if these fluids enter another body.

In New Zealand  the African Community is the second most at risk group. Unprotected vaginal intercourse is a high-risk activity for HIV.  HIV in semen can enter the bloodstream through cells lining the vaginal walls, whereas HIV in vaginal fluids can enter a man’s body through the end of his penis or the inner folds of his foreskin.

HIV is not airborne and cannot be transmitted through skin to skin contact or kissing.

Transmission from mother to child

Transmission from an HIV positive mother to her child during pregnancy, birth, or later as a result of breastfeeding is known as vertical transmission.  However, with planning from healthcare professionals, people who are HIV positive are able to conceive, deliver and care for healthy HIV negative children.

Blood to blood transmission

Blood to blood transmission most commonly occurs when a needle is shared between injecting drug users, where one user is HIV positive.  In New Zealand, due to the work of Needle Exchanges across the country, this is no longer a regular occurrence.

What is safe?

HIV is not passed on through sharing food, eating utensils or by drinking from the same cup as someone who has HIV. You can hug, kiss and touch someone with HIV and not worry about getting HIV. You can also use a public toilet or telephone, share a towel with someone or swim in a pool and not be concerned about being accidentally infected.


There is no cure for HIV, so it’s essential to reduce your chances of getting HIV, or if you do have HIV, from passing it on to others:

  • always use condoms and lube for anal or vaginal sex
  • limit the number of sexual partners you have because your risk of getting HIV goes up with the number of partners you have.
  • do not inject drugs or if you do, always use new equipment and never, ever share needles. NZ has an excellent Needle Exchange Programme that provides free or very low cost new syringes and equipment at more than 200 outlets all over NZ.
  • If you’ve been having unprotected sex, get tested for HIV and other STIs.

The HIV virus cannot pass through intact latex.  Because of this, condoms and lube are recognised globally as the best way to protect you and your partner from HIV.

Testing for HIV

To determine whether HIV is present in your blood, you’ll need to take a HIV test.  The New Zealand AIDS Foundation uses an HIV FASTest to test for the virus – this takes about 20 minutes to complete and is available from all our centres.  More details on the HIV FASTest can be found here.

What is the ‘window period’?


An HIV test measures antibodies to HIV, rather than HIV itself.  It is not possible to find out if you’ve acquired the HIV virus immediately, because these antibodies can take up to three months to appear in your blood.  The time between somebody acquiring HIV and the development of antibodies is called the window period.

In addition to the virus being undetectable during the window period, people with HIV are also most infectious during this period; which means you can pass the HIV virus to another person even if tests show you are HIV negative.  This is why it is so important to use condoms and lube every time you have sex.

Where can I get condoms?

You can get condoms from pharmacists, supermarkets and sexual health centres all over New Zealand. Alternatively, you can get FREE condoms by filling out this form.

Signs and Symptoms

It’s possible to have HIV for a long time, even years, but show no symptoms. The only way to know for sure is to have an HIV test.

Some of the common symptoms of HIV infection include:

  • unintentional weight loss
  • diarrhoea
  • skin rashes, especially on your face, genitals or anus
  • an increase in herpes ulcers or thrush infections in your mouth and genitals
  • sweating profusely, especially at night
  • unusual tiredness
  • nausea or loss of appetite
  • swollen lymph glands in the neck, groin or armpits.

What to look out for

These symptoms can all be caused by conditions other than HIV. However, if you think you may have been exposed to HIV, if you’ve had unprotected sex or if you experience all or some of these symptoms persistently, it’s a good idea to get an HIV test.


It takes just 20 minutes to test for HIV at an NZAF Regional Centre or counsellor. If you’d like to book an HIV test or simply want to know more about them you can do so here.

The FASTest that the NZAF uses is

  • FAST
  • TEST

The NZAF FASTest for HIV is an antibody test. Antibodies are the immune system’s response to infection. On average it takes three months for the body to produce antibodies. So if an antibody test is performed during the first three months after a person is infected, during the window period, it is likely to show up negative, even though the person has HIV. This is why an HIV test must always be followed up after three months with a second test to be sure that the result is accurate. Any HIV test that has a positive result in New Zealand must be confirmed by a Western Blot test which is carried out by a doctor.

Living with HIV in New Zealand

In New Zealand most people living with HIV live long and productive lives by taking antiretroviral medication that treats HIV. However, while HIV can be treated there is still no cure. People who do not know that they have HIV for a long period of time can develop AIDS and AIDS-related illnesses.


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