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The words people use to talk about HIV affect the way people living with HIV feel about themselves. These words also have an impact on how others view people living with HIV.

Why Language Matters

Throughout their lives, women may experience multiple forms of oppression and discrimination based on gender, race, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, or other factors. The oppression and discrimination are often reinforced through language. For instance, an aggressive, powerful woman is called a "bitch," while a man with the same qualities is viewed with respect and called "ambitious." Adding an HIV diagnosis can magnify this oppression and affect self-worth, confidence, and self-identity.

Over the years, repeatedly hearing language that reinforces stigma, oppression, and discrimination ultimately affects the health and well-being of women diagnosed with HIV. Stigma and stress have a negative effect on a woman's overall quality of life, which can affect her family, her children, her job, and even her pregnancies. It is rare to find a woman living with HIV who has not felt stigmatized in some way.

Preferred Language About HIV

Over the years, as we have learned more about HIV treatment, care, and prevention, as advocates we have pushed HIV service organizations, media outlets, and other institutions to use language describing HIV that reflects those changes. Included in the left-hand column of the table below are some of the first terms ever used to talk about HIV. Bit by bit, the language we use is shifting toward the preferred terminology. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) developed guidelines for preferred terminology as a guide on how we use language without discriminating others.

Stigmatizing Language
("Try not to use")

Preferred Language
("Use this instead")

HIV-infected person

Person living with HIV; person with HIV; PLHIV
Never use "infected" when referring to a person

HIV or AIDS patient, AIDS or HIV carrier

Positives or HIVers

Died of AIDS, to die of AIDS

Died of AIDS-related illness, AIDS-related complications, end-stage HIV

AIDS virus

HIV (AIDS is a diagnosis, not a virus; it cannot be transmitted)

Full-blown AIDS

There is no medical definition for this phrase; simply use the term AIDS, or Stage 3 HIV

HIV virus

This is redundant; simply use the term HIV

Zero new infections

Zero new HIV transmissions; zero new HIV cases

HIV infection

HIV case; HIV acquisition; diagnosed with HIV

HIV infected

Living with HIV or diagnosed with HIV

Number of infections

Number diagnosed with HIV; number of HIV acquisitions

Became infected with HIV

Contracted or acquired HIV; diagnosed with HIV

HIV-exposed infant

Infant exposed to HIV; infant born to a person living with HIV

Serodiscordant couple

Serodifferent, magnetic, or mixed-status couple

Mother-to-child HIV transmission

Vertical HIV transmission or perinatal HIV transmission

Victim, innocent victim, sufferer, contaminated, infected

Person living with HIV; survivor; warrior
Never use the term "infected" when referring to a person

AIDS orphans

Children orphaned by loss of parents/guardians who died of AIDS-related complications

AIDS test

HIV test (AIDS is a diagnosis; there is no AIDS test)

Catch AIDS, contract AIDS, transmit AIDS, catch HIV

AIDS diagnosis; developed AIDS; acquire HIV

(AIDS is a diagnosis and cannot be passed from one person to the next)



HIV risk, at risk for HIV

HIV relevance; reasons for HIV prevention; vulnerable to HIV; chance of acquiring HIV; likelihood of acquiring HIV

(Common "risk" framing focuses on people's individual actions;  individual behaviour is rarely the driver of a woman’s likelihood of acquiring HIV, but rather the forces outside women’s control – including systemic racism, poverty, geography, partner behaviour and vulnerability, etc.)

Prostitute or prostitution

Sex worker; sale of sexual services; transactional sex


Having multiple sex partners

("Promiscuous" is a value judgment and should be avoided)

Down-low man; on the down-low

Man who has sex with women and men; bisexual or pansexual man; same-gender-loving man (depends on individual identity)

("The down-low" is a term sometimes used to describe men who may not disclose that they have sex with men as well as women due to stigma against diverse sexualities and sexual practices. This term increases stigma and should be avoided)

Unprotected sex

Sex without barriers or treatment-as-prevention methods
Condomless sex with
Condomless sex without PrEP
Condomless sex

Death sentence, fatal condition, or life-threatening condition

HIV is a chronic and manageable health condition when people are able to access care and treatment

"Tainted" blood; "dirty" needles

Blood containing HIV; used needles

Clean, as in "I am clean, are you"

Referring to yourself or others as being "clean" suggests that those living with HIV are dirty. Avoid this term.

A drug that prevents HIV infection

A drug that prevents the transmission or acquisition of HIV


End HIV transmission, end HIV-related deaths
Be specific: are we ending AIDS diagnoses or are we ending the transmission of HIV?


These are all powerful ways to be an advocate -- and they don't all involve being the loudest voice in a big crowd. Every time you question the use of a phrase that fuels stigma and ignorance -- even to yourself -- you contribute to building hope, and to changing our culture from one that disrespects women living with HIV to one that uses language to support the power and dignity of people living with HIV.