StigmaWatch: A basic guide to better HIV communications language

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. Left untreated, HIV can lead to the disease AIDS - acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Those with HIV carry the virus for life. What doesn’t need to carry on is the stigma. Reducing stigma and improving stigma literacy is a long and difficult process. It’s about understanding, then actively making our words and actions align with the needs of those who need it most to improve their physical, mental and emotional health. 

This is an important component for those who are living with HIV, and those who sup-port them. Why? Because avoiding negative language and adopting positive language that does not stigmatize people - people of all ages, and identities - will help change societal and individual attitudes. Adopting positive language can also aid in increasing HIV testing, prevention, treatment and ultimately improving self-worth. Over time, this can help in stopping the spread of HIV and allow people to live better, longer lives. 

Language about people


Remember to put the person first. A person lives with HIV after being infected with the virus or progresses to receiving an AIDS diagnosis.

Language about the virus


Remember, AIDS is not a single condition. It’s a syndrome, or a host of conditions that result from a person’s immunity being weakened by an HIV infection. People don’t catch or transmit AIDS, they become infected with HIV.

Language about protection and sex

*Sourced via the DHS Wisconsin AIDS/HIV Program (https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/publications/p01858.pdf). 

Remember, about 90% of the time HIV is transmitted during sex. And while condoms can greatly reduce risk, they can never fully eliminate it. While the fluids above can transmit HIV, fluids like saliva, tears, sweat or urine cannot, so be specific. 

How Stigma Hurts

Public and institutional stigma can reflect language used in the media, social service and medical communities and among family, friends and co-workers. Stigmatizing language can lead to people and groups feeling ostracized, avoided, rejected, amoral, victimized and discriminated against. 

When internalized, individuals can feel negative shame, socially withdrawn, excluded and fearful of taking positive steps to improve their health, self-awareness and self-worth. 

Both Internal and internalized stigma can hinder progress for societies and individuals. Improving language literacy is the first step. With your help, we can use the right language to help improve countless lives. 

Next StigmaWatch: A Guide to Healing Mental Health Communications Language 

Stay tuned for our next StigmaWatch article, where we will provide words and phrases to avoid and adopt in mental health communications. 

Check out previous StigmaWatch articles here.

We welcome your thoughts and ideas on stigma and language. Just send them to KW2 Account Supervisor and Behavior Change Specialist Michelle Sweet.

For more information on the Wisconsin AIDS/HIV program, visit https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/...