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.

Using people-first language can help reduce HIV-related stigma because it focuses on people rather than their health status and presents a more respectful portrayal of individuals. 

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 began as follows:

“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.’”

People-first language is also free of the kinds of value judgments about a person’s behavior that may put them at greater risk of contracting HIV. In addition, using gender- inclusive language can help lessen stigma surrounding HIV while also helping to promote gender equality and eliminate gender bias. We can better support those living with—and at risk of contracting—HIV by choosing our words carefully and accurately.


Stigmatizing Language:

HIV/AIDS

Preferred Language

Be specific. Are you referring to HIV, AIDS or both?

Stigmatizing Language:

HIV-infected person, HIVers, HIV or AIDS carrier, victim, sufferer

Preferred Language

Person living with HIV or AIDS. Emphasize the person not their diagnosis.

Stigmatizing Language:

HIV or AIDS patient

Preferred Language

Client or member of the HIV community

Stigmatizing Language:

Died of AIDS

Preferred Language

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

Stigmatizing Language:

Full-blown AIDS

Preferred Language

AIDS or end-stage HIV. AIDS has no stages.

Stigmatizing Language:

HIV infections

Preferred Language

HIV acquisitions, transmissions, cases or diagnoses

Stigmatizing Language:

Contaminated or infected with HIV

Preferred Language

Contracted or acquired HIV or diagnosed with HIV

Stigmatizing Language:

Catch, contract or transmit AIDS or catch HIV

Preferred Language

Contract, transmit or acquire HIV. AIDS is not transmitted, and HIV is not something you catch

Stigmatizing Language:
Coinfect
Preferred Language
Contract, transmit or acquire multiple viruses
Stigmatizing Language:

Serodiscordant couple

Preferred Language

Serodifferent or mixed-status couple

Stigmatizing Language: HIV-exposed infant
Preferred LanguageInfant exposed to HIV
Stigmatizing Language:

AIDS orphan

Preferred Language

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

Stigmatizing Language:
Compliant or noncompliant
Preferred Language

Adherent or nonadherent is more positive and proactive.

Stigmatizing Language:

HIV is a death sentence, fatal or a life-threatening condition.

Preferred Language

HIV is a chronic, manageable health condition that can be serious for people not in care or treatment.

Stigmatizing Language:

Prevent HIV infection

Preferred Language

Reduce the risk of contracting or acquiring HIV

Stigmatizing Language:

Unprotected or unsafe sex

Preferred Language

Sex without a condom, sex without the use of PrEP or sex without an undetectable viral load. Be specific.

Stigmatizing Language:

Prostitute; prostitution

Preferred Language
Sex worker; transactional sex or the sale of sexual services
Stigmatizing Language:

Promiscuous

Preferred Language
Having more than one sexual partner
Stigmatizing Language:

Tainted needles; tainted blood

Preferred Language

Shared needles or equipment; blood containing HIV

Stigmatizing Language:

Clean or dirty

Preferred Language

Avoid these terms. HIV has nothing to do with one’s hygiene.

Stigmatizing Language:

Drug user/addict

Preferred Language

Person who uses drugs or who has a substance use disorder

Stigmatizing Language:

A transgender, transgendered

Preferred Language

Person who is transgender, person of trans experience

Stigmatizing Language:

Biological sex

Preferred Language
Assigned gender at birth
Stigmatizing Language:

Incorrect or assumed pronouns

Preferred Language

Use correct pronouns. If unsure, ask.

Stigmatizing Language:

Sex change operation/surgery

Preferred Language

Gender-affirming surgery

Stigmatizing Language:

Changed gender or sex

Preferred Language

Transitioned

Stigmatizing Language:

Gendered terms (mailman, manmade)

Preferred Language

Use inclusive terms (mail carrier, made by humans)

This language chart was adapted from guidelines created for and by people living with HIV from CAN Community Health and Positive Women’s Network—USA. Special thanks to Vickie Lynn, MSW, MPH; Venita Ray, JD; Valerie Wojciechowicz; CAN Community Health; and Positive Women’s Network–USA.  Click here to read more about people-first language and reducing stigma in HIV communication.

Here are some additional resources on language and HIV: 

A Guide to Talking About HIV (CDC)

UNAIDS Terminology Guidelines (UNAIDS)

NIAID HIV Language Guide (NIAID) 

Last Reviewed: February 1, 2022