Skip to Content
Living with HIV? Check out the patient's guide to HIV



AIDS is the final stage of HIV. HIV kills a type of white blood cell called CD4 cells, which weakens your immune system. Your immune system becomes too weak to fight infections. A weak immune system can also lead to certain cancers and heart disease. A normal CD4 count ranges from 500 to 2000. You have HIV when your CD4 count ranges from 200 to 500. You have AIDS when your CD4 count is less than 200 or you have one of the infections or cancers caused by AIDS.


Seek care immediately if:

  • You have a fever with night sweats or vomiting.

  • You have trouble breathing.

  • You are coughing up blood, or you have bloody bowel movements.

  • You have a headache and a stiff neck.

  • You have new vision problems.

  • You are confused and notice changes in the way you think.

  • You have a seizure.

Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • You are having side effects from your medicines that make you want to stop taking them.

  • You are very tired or have lost weight.

  • You have ongoing nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

  • You have white vaginal discharge and vaginal pain or swelling.

  • You have raw, painful skin or open sores around your rectum.

  • You see white spots, sores, or hairy patches inside your mouth.

  • You have a rash, blisters, bruises, or other skin changes.

  • You have a cough that will not go away, or swollen lumps in your neck or armpits (swollen lymph nodes).

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.


  • Antiretroviral medications slow the progression of HIV. They are given in different combinations called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). Your healthcare provider will decide what kind of HAART you need. You may need to make HAART changes if you have severe side effects, or if you develop resistance to a medicine.

  • Antidepressants may be given to improve your mood. Rarely, antidepressants can make your symptoms worse. Do not stop taking them unless directed. It may take 4 to 6 weeks for antidepressants to help you feel better.

  • Antimicrobial medicines are given to kill infections caused by bacteria, viruses, or a fungus.

  • Medicines may be given to help calm your stomach and prevent vomiting. You may receive a different medicine to help relieve diarrhea.

  • Prescription pain medicine may be given. Ask your healthcare provider how to take this medicine safely.

  • Oxygen may be needed if you have lung cancer or a lung disease. Extra oxygen may help you breathe easier. It may be given through a mask over your nose or thin tubes that rest just inside your nose. Tell your healthcare provider if your nose gets red, dry, or sore. Never smoke or let anyone else smoke in the same room while your oxygen is on. This can cause a fire.

  • Take your medicine as directed. Call your healthcare provider if you think your medicine is not helping or if you have side effects. Tell him if you are allergic to any medicine. Keep a list of the medicines, vitamins, and herbs you take. Include the amounts, and when and why you take them. Bring the list or the pill bottles to follow-up visits. Carry your medicine list with you in case of an emergency.


  • Eat small amounts often. If you do not feel hungry, eat small amounts often instead of large meals. You need to eat enough calories to prevent weight loss caused by AIDS. You also need to eat protein and iron to prevent anemia, and calcium to prevent bone loss. Never eat raw eggs, unpasteurized foods, undercooked meat, or anything else that could lead to food poisoning.

  • Take supplements as directed. Ask your healthcare provider if you should take calcium and vitamin D pills to prevent the loss of bone density. You may also need multivitamins.

  • A feeding tube may be needed to give you nutrients if you have trouble swallowing, mouth sores, or severe vomiting.

Follow up with your healthcare provider every 3 or 4 months:

You will need to visit your healthcare provider at least every 3 months for a physical exam. He will order blood tests often to check your CD4 cell and viral load counts. He may test you for other infections on a regular basis. Tell him if side effects from your medicines bother you. Write down your questions so your remember to ask them during your visits.


You or the person who helps care for you at home can do any of the following to increase your comfort:

  • Care for your mouth. Use a toothbrush with soft bristles. If you have mouth sores or pain when you swallow, rinse your mouth with salt water. Mix ½ teaspoon of salt in a glass of water to make salt water. Do this after meals and before you go to sleep. If your mouth is dry, sip drinks often or suck on pieces of fruit. Avoid citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits. Citrus can hurt your mouth sores.

  • Treat diarrhea. Apply petroleum jelly to your anal area after bowel movements. Wash the area 3 times each day with soap and water. Do not have caffeine, dairy, or spicy foods. Diarrhea can sometimes lead to dehydration. Drink small amounts of fluid throughout the day, or drink oral rehydration solution (ORS) to prevent dehydration.

  • Breathe more comfortably. Sit upright or in a position that allows you to breathe comfortably. Use extra pillows to support your back. Open windows for fresh air. Sip water often if you have a chronic cough.

  • Do not smoke. If you smoke, ask for information on how to stop. HIV and medicines to treat HIV can increase your risk for heart disease. Nicotine increases your risk for heart disease even higher. Do not use e-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco products in place of cigarettes. They still contain nicotine.

  • Care for your mental health. Dementia (loss of memory and brain function) can sometimes occur with AIDS. To manage dementia, keep things in the same place and follow a pattern for each day's activities. Stay in familiar places and avoid noise whenever possible.

  • Make end-of-life decisions. Ask your healthcare provider for more information about advanced medical directives. These documents help you decide and write down your choices for end-of-life care. It is best to complete them early in your illness, when you can think clearly about your wishes. You may want to learn more about hospice care. Hospice is a program that will help make you comfortable in the last 6 months of your life.

Prevent the spread of HIV:

Tell your sex partners of your HIV status. Do not have sex without a latex condom. If you inject drugs, do not share needles or syringes. Use a needle exchange program to obtain clean needles. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you need help to stop injecting drugs.

For support and more information:

  • AIDS Info
    P.O. Box 6303
    Rockville , MD 20849-6303
    Phone: 1- 800 - 448-0440
    Web Address:
  • The National Association of People With AIDS
    8401 Colesville Rd, Ste 505
    Silver Spring , MD 20910
    Phone: 1- 240 - 247-0880
    Phone: 1- 866 - 846-9366
    Web Address:

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Learn more about Aids (Discharge Care)