Despite tremendous advances in HIV treatment and prevention, HIV-related stigma persists, which is why the language and terms we use to describe HIV and AIDS as well as people living with HIV matter. Certain words can help foster positive attitudes about people living with HIV while other words and phrases we choose can fuel stereotypes, stigma and discrimination.

“People-first language” is one way of reducing stigma because it focuses on the person instead of the person’s health status or disability. Rather than use labels to define individuals with health issues, it is more appropriate to use terminology that describes people as having been diagnosed with an illness or disorder. This type of language is often used in other health-related contexts. For example, in the context of diabetes, rather than referring to someone as a “diabetic,” it is more appropriate to say “a person living with diabetes.” Similarly, instead of referring to a person as “mentally ill,” it is more appropriate to say “a person living with a mental health condition” or “a person living with depression.”

The concept of people-first language ­was first introduced in 1983 when a group of HIV activists created “The Denver Principles,” a self-empowerment manifesto that includes the following:

“We condemn attempts to label us as ‘victims,’ which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally ‘patients,’ which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are ‘people with AIDS.’”

Being referred to as “infected” or a “patient” or identified as a disease is exhausting and unnecessary. Emphasizing the individual living with HIV, rather than the virus itself, helps to eliminate generalizations and stereotypes and presents a more respectful portrayal of a person.

The preferred non-stigmatizing language guidelines that follow were created for and by people living with HIV. Click here for more info.

Stigmatizing Language:

HIV infected person

HIV or AIDS patient

AIDS or HIV carrier

Positives or HIVers 

Preferred LanguagePerson living with HIV or PLHIV. Do not use “infected” when referring to a person. Use “people first language,” which emphasizes the person, not their diagnosis
Stigmatizing Language: Died of AIDS, to die of AIDS
Preferred LanguageDied of AIDS-related illness, died of AIDS-related complications or end stage HIV
Stigmatizing Language: AIDS virus
Preferred LanguageHIV (AIDS is a diagnosis not a virus—it cannot be transmitted)
Stigmatizing Language: Full-blown AIDS
Preferred LanguageThere is no medical definition for this phrase—simply use the term AIDS, or Stage 3 HIV
Stigmatizing Language: HIV virus
Preferred LanguageThis is redundant; use HIV
Stigmatizing Language: Zero new infections
Preferred LanguageZero new HIV acquisitions or transmissions
Stigmatizing Language: HIV infections
Preferred LanguageHIV transmissions, diagnosed with HIV, PLHIV
Stigmatizing Language: HIV infected
Preferred LanguageLiving with or diagnosed with HIV, contracted or acquired HIV
Stigmatizing Language: Number of infections
Preferred LanguageNumber diagnosed with HIV, number of HIV acquisitions
Stigmatizing Language: Became infected
Preferred LanguageContracted, acquired, diagnosed with
Stigmatizing Language: HIV-exposed infant
Preferred LanguageInfant exposed to HIV
Stigmatizing Language: Serodiscordant couple
Preferred LanguageSerodifferent, magnetic or mixed status couple
Stigmatizing Language: Mother to child transmission
Preferred LanguageVertical transmission or perinatal transmission
Stigmatizing Language: Victim, innocent victim, sufferer, contaminated, infected
Preferred LanguagePerson living with HIV, survivor, warrior (Do not use “infected” when referring to a person)
Stigmatizing Language: AIDS orphans
Preferred LanguageChildren orphaned by loss of parents/guardians who died of AIDS related complications
Stigmatizing Language: AIDS test
Preferred LanguageHIV test (AIDS is a diagnosis, there is not an AIDS test)
Stigmatizing Language: To catch AIDS, to contract AIDS, transmit AIDS, to catch HIV
Preferred LanguageAn AIDS diagnosis, developed AIDS, to contract HIV (AIDS is a diagnosis, which cannot be passed from one person to the next)
Stigmatizing Language: Compliant
Preferred LanguageAdherent
Stigmatizing Language: Prostitute or prostitution
Preferred LanguageSex worker, sale of sexual services, transactional sex
Stigmatizing Language: Promiscuous
Preferred LanguageThis is a value judgment and should be avoided, instead use “having multiple partners”
Stigmatizing Language: Unprotected sex
Preferred LanguageCondomless sex with PrEP, condomless sex without PrEP, sex not protected by condoms, sex not protected by antiretroviral prevention methods
Stigmatizing Language: Death Sentence, fatal condition or life- threatening condition
Preferred LanguageA serious health issue, chronic health condition or manageable health for people who have access to care and treatment
Stigmatizing Language: “Tainted” blood; “dirty” needles
Preferred LanguageBlood containing HIV, shared needles or shared syringes
Stigmatizing Language: Clean, as in “I am clean are you?”
Preferred LanguageReferring to yourself or others as being “clean” suggests that those living with HIV are dirty. Avoid!
Stigmatizing Language: “A drug that prevents HIV infection”
Preferred LanguageA drug that prevents the transmission of HIV
Stigmatizing Language: End HIV, End AIDS
Preferred LanguageEnd HIV transmission. Be specific: are we ending HIV or AIDS?

Special thanks to Vickie Lynn, MSW, MPH, who is a doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida, and Valerie Wojciechowicz, who is a nutrition and fitness expert. Both are advocates living with HIV. Click here to read more about people-first language and reducing stigma in HIV communication.

Last Reviewed: April 20, 2018