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Glossary of HIV/AIDS Terms

for Health Care Providers

Glossary of HIV Terms

Accidental inoculation

An occupational exposure to HIV that occurs during the performance of job duties (by a nurse or doctor, for example). Includes a needlestick or cut with a sharp object, contact of mucous membranes (mouth, eyes), or contact of skin (especially when the exposed skin is chapped, abraded, or afflicted with dermatitis — skin rash or sores — or the contact is prolonged or involves an extensive area) with blood, tissues, or other body fluids (stool, urine, vaginal secretions, saliva, mucous) to which universal precautions apply.

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)

The most severe manifestation of infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization, and many national governments list numerous opportunistic infections and cancers that, in the presence of HIV infection, result in an AIDS diagnosis. AIDS is also defined on the basis of the degree of immunodeficiency in an individual with HIV infection.

Active immunity

Protection from a disease as a result of previous exposure to the disease-causing infectious agent or part of the infectious agent (antigen). The protection can be a result of having had the disease or having received a vaccine to prevent getting the disease.

Active tuberculosis (TB)

Active disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, as evidenced by a confirmatory culture, or, in the absence of culture, suggestive clinical symptoms, including productive cough lasting >3 weeks, chest pain, hemoptysis, fever, night sweats, weight loss, and easy fatigability. Active TB is a communicable disease that is treatable, curable, and preventable. Persons with active TB disease should be under the care of a health care provider. Active TB disease may indicate immune deficiency. For people with HIV, active TB disease is considered an opportunistic infection and a qualifying condition for an AIDS diagnosis.

Acute HIV infection

The period following infection when there is rapid production of virus. An estimated 80% to 90% of individuals with primary HIV infection develop an acute syndrome (disorder) characterized by flulike symptoms of fever, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, headache, aching muscles, and sometimes skin rash. Following infection, the immune system produces antibody and a cellular response to the virus (seroconversion) and a broad HIV-specific immune response occurs, usually within an average of 3 weeks after HIV infection. High levels of virus (HIV RNA) can be found in the blood during this time.


Enlargement of lymph nodes.


The extent to which a patient takes the agreed-upon medication or other treatment as prescribed.


An ingredient added to a prescription or solution that increases or modifies the action of the principal ingredient. May be used in treatment of HIV or for HIV vaccines.

Adverse reaction

(Adverse event) An unwanted effect caused by the administration of drugs or vaccines. Onset may be sudden or develop over the course of time.

See Side effects.


A form of administering a drug in which the drug, such as pentamidine, is turned into a fine spray or mist by a nebulizer and inhaled.


A nearly total absence of antibodies (immunoglobulins) resulting in loss of the ability to produce immune antibodies.

See Antibody.

AIDS dementia complex (ADC)

See HIV-associated dementia (HAD).

AIDS wasting syndrome

See Wasting syndrome.

AIDS-related cancer

Any of several cancers that are more common or more aggressive in persons living with HIV. These malignancies include certain types of immune system cancers known as lymphomas, Kaposi sarcoma, and anogenital cancers that primarily affect the anus and the cervix.

Alanine aminotransferase (ALT)

A liver enzyme that plays a role in protein metabolism. Abnormally high blood levels of ALT are a sign of liver inflammation or damage from infection or drugs. A normal level is below approximately 50 IU/L.

Alkaline phosphatase

An enzyme normally present in certain cells within the liver, bone, kidney, intestine, and placenta. When the cells are destroyed in those tissues, more of the enzyme leaks into the blood, and levels rise in proportion to the severity of the condition. Measurement of this enzyme is used as an indication of the health of the liver.


Loss of hair that frequently occurs in patients undergoing treatment for cancer or suffering from certain other diseases, in which cell-killing, or cytotoxic, drugs are used.

Alpha interferon (interferon alpha, IFN)

A protein produced by the immune system in response to infection that assists in controlling virus infection.

Alternative medicine

A broad category of treatment systems (eg, chiropractic, herbal medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy, and spiritual devotions) or culturally based healing traditions such as Chinese, Ayurvedic, and Christian Science. Alternative medicine approaches often are not accepted by the biomedical (ie, mainstream Western) establishment. Alternative medicine also is referred to as "complementary medicine." The designation "alternative medicine" is not equivalent to holistic medicine, a narrower term.

Alternative test site

A site that provides only HIV services. Sometimes referred to as an anonymous test site.


An inflammation of the intestines caused by infection with Entamoeba histolytica (a type of ameba) and characterized by frequent, loose stools flecked with blood and mucus.

Anal intercourse/Anal sex

A type of sexual intercourse in which a man inserts his penis in his partner's anus. Anal sex can be insertive or receptive.


A lower than normal number of red blood cells.


The loss or weakening of the body's immunity to an irritating agent, or antigen. Patients may be so immunodeficient that they are unable to produce a reaction to an infectious agent. For example, such patients usually will not test positive for tuberculosis (TB) on a tuberculin skin test (or Mantoux test).


Related to the anal (rectum) and/or genital (sexual) area of the body.


Without an ability to identify a person. In anonymous testing, patient-identifying information is not linked to testing information, including the request for tests or test results.


The lack or loss of appetite that leads to significant decline in weight.


The period between conception and birth. Same as prenatal.


A natural or manufactured substance that prevents the growth of bacteria or fungi. Some antibiotics are used to treat infectious diseases.


Substances in the blood or other body fluids that destroy bacteria, viruses, or other harmful agents (antigens). They are members of a class of proteins known as immunoglobulins, which are produced by special white blood cells called B-lymphocytes.

Antibody-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity (ADCC)

An immune response in which antibodies bind to target cells, identifying them for attack by the immune system.

Antibody-mediated immunity

Also called humoral immunity. Immunity that results from the activity of antibodies in blood and lymphoid tissue.


A substance that kills or slows the growth of a fungus.


A substance that, when introduced into the body, stimulates production of an antibody.


A substance that prevents the development or growth of cancer cells.


A substance that kills or inhibits the growth of single-celled microorganisms called protozoa.


A substance that kills or suppresses a retrovirus, such as HIV.

Antiretroviral drugs

Substances used to kill or stop the multiplication of retroviruses such as HIV.

Antiretroviral therapy (ART)

Combination antiretroviral regimens that aggressively decrease HIV viral multiplication to halt the progress of HIV disease. The usual ART regimen combines three or more different drugs. These treatment regimens can reduce the amount of virus so that it becomes undetectable in a patient's blood.


A substance or process that destroys a virus or suppresses its replication (ie, reproduction).

Aphthous ulcer

A painful mouth or throat sore of unknown cause. Aphthous ulcers are common in persons living with HIV.

Approved drugs

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and similar government departments must approve a substance as a drug before it can be marketed.


Antiretroviral therapy

See Antiretroviral therapy (ART).


A pain in a joint.


A fungal infection — resulting from the fungus Aspergillus — of the lungs that can spread through the blood to other organs. Symptoms include fever, chills, difficulty in breathing, and coughing up blood.


A qualitative or quantitative analysis of a substance; a test.


Without symptoms or not sick. Usually used in HIV/AIDS literature to describe a person who has HIV infection but who shows no clinical symptoms of the disease and who is not sick. Even though a person is asymptomatic, he or is still undergoing damage to the immune system and may still infect another person with HIV.


Loss of balance.


Weakened or decreased. For example, an attenuated virus can no longer produce disease but might be used to produce a vaccine.