What is AIDS?

AIDS is a condition which renders the immune system inadequate, allowing diseases to develop. Aids is an abbreviation of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome .

In brief

  • HIV can lead to AIDS, if left untreated
  • People with reduced immune defences are more susceptible to various diseases
  • AIDS is a combination of symptoms (a syndrome)
  • In the Netherlands, most people with AIDS recover when they start using medication
  • In the Netherlands, few people die from AIDS


In the past, when there was no treatment available for HIV, many people died from AIDS. AIDS is not so common in the Netherlands anymore. Most of the people diagnosed with AIDS in the Netherlands nowadays, don’t know they have HIV. They have a chronic untreated HIV infection, and a compromised immune system. Read more here about HIV infection.

You don't get AIDS until HIV has so severely compromised your immune system that you get an opportunistic infection. In normal circumstances, your immune system would take care of this infection. But with lowered immunity (less than 200 CD4 cells per ml of blood) a person can become very sick from such an infection. The infection can sometimes even be life-threatening. One example of this is pneumonia: people with good immunity usually recover after two or three weeks; for someone with a very poor immune system, it can be fatal. If you get an opportunistic infection, then you not only have HIV, but you have AIDS as well. With good care and HIV medication, even someone with AIDS can recover.

When the immune system is severely compromised (less than 200 CD4 cells per ml of blood), you risk getting: 

  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • Persistent fungal infections
  • Recurrent severe herpes
  • Dementia
  • Diminished sensation in arms and legs
  • Cancer

Late diagnosis

In the Netherlands, approximately 40% of people in the healthcare system with HIV have a late diagnosis. They are called late presenters. This means that, by the time they seek medical help, they already have AIDS, or their CD4 cell count has dropped below 350 CD4 cells per ml of blood. 25% even have less than 200 CD4 cells per ml of blood. If you already have AIDS, HIV medication usually allows you to recover well.

Difference between HIV and AIDS

If you have HIV, that does not mean that you also have AIDS. There are not many people with AIDS in the Netherlands, because HIV is so easy to treat. In the Netherlands, people who get AIDS are mainly people who didn’t take HIV medication because they weren’t aware they had HIV. You won't be diagnosed with AIDS until your immune system has been seriously compromised by HIV. You then get sick because of an infection that a healthy immune system would normally be able to fight off easily.

This information is useful

Read also

HIV testing


Transmission of HIV


What is HIV?