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Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome

What is AIDS? "AIDS" stands for acquired immune deficiency (d-fish-in-c) syndrome (sin-drome). To get AIDS, you have to be infected with the human immunodeficiency (ih-mew-no-d-fish-in-c) virus or "HIV." Once you are infected with this virus, you will probably remain infected for life. But, a lot of progress in treating AIDS is being made. People infected with HIV are living longer and better lives.

Causes: The HIV virus weakens your immune system by damaging the T-cells (also called CD4+ cells), a type of white blood cell (WBC). These cells help your body to fight illnesses and cancers. With AIDS, T-cells slowly die and cannot help fight infection.

Signs and Symptoms: You have AIDS when you have a positive HIV test and a T-cell count less than 200. A healthy adult's T-cell count should be more than 500.

  • You can have HIV in your blood for some time and not know it. You may have one or more of the following symptoms.
    • Changes in your ability to think.
    • Changes in your nervous system.
    • Diarrhea.
    • Fevers.
    • Joint pain.
    • Mouth, throat, vagina, or rectal (rear end) sores.
    • Night sweats.
    • Skin rashes.
    • Swollen glands in your neck, jaw, armpit, or groin (between your legs).
    • Weight loss.
  • With AIDS, your body has trouble fighting off germs or cancer. You can get infected with germs that do not bother most people, often in the lungs or brain. You can also get some kinds of pneumonia that most people do not get, such as pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), an infection of the lungs. Or, you could get Kaposi's sarcoma (KS), a form of cancer.

How is HIV spread? Following are ways that AIDS can and cannot be spread. Ask your caregiver for the CareNotes about how HIV is spread for more information.

  • HIV is spread through blood and certain body fluids (sperm, vaginal fluids and breast milk). Having sex (especially if not using a latex condom) with someone who has HIV may spread it. Injecting drugs with used equipment may spread the virus. An infected mother may spread the virus to her baby before or during birth. HIV may also be spread to a baby through breast-feeding. In the US, before 1985, people could be infected by HIV infected blood and blood products. Since 1985 blood is tested before being used.
  • You cannot get AIDS from touching, sneezing or coughing. AIDS cannot be gotten from food, toilet seats, clothes, sheets, or insects. Sharing eating and drinking dishes cannot spread the disease. You cannot get AIDS from swimming pools, or other public places. AIDS is not spread from tears, urine, or sweat.

Are there other infections and cancers I could get because I have AIDS?

  • Cytomegalovirus (si-to-meg-uh-lo-vi-rus) is also called "CMV." It is a virus (germ) that may cause you to feel tired or to have a fever. You may also have large lymph nodes and pain in your muscles or throat. You could get a liver (hepatitis), lung (pneumonia), eye, or bowel infection from CMV. Long-term problems may be diarrhea or blindness.
  • Kaposi's (kuh-po-zees) sarcoma (sar-ko-muh) is a common cancer in AIDS patients. It is also called "KS." This cancer may first show up on the legs or mouth as skin sores that are purplish-red. These sores may slowly spread. KS may also be in lymph nodes and other places inside your body. You may have pain if you have KS in the mouth. A tissue biopsy (bi-op-see) is a test done to see if you have KS.
  • Mycobacterium (mi-ko-bak-teer-e-wn) avium complex is a common AIDS infection. It is also called "MAC." Signs may be a long-term cough, coughing or spitting up blood, or abdominal (belly) pain. You may have diarrhea, fever, weight loss, night sweats, or feel tired.
  • Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (lim-fo-muh) is a cancer that may effect AIDS patients. It may be found in the gastrointestinal (gas-tro-in-tes-tih-null) tract (food tract), brain, or spinal cord. Or, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma may be found in the bone marrow, liver, or lungs. The signs of lymphoma depend upon which body organ is effected.
  • Pneumocystis (new-mo-sis-tis) carinii (kuh-rin-e-i) pneumonia (new-moan-yuh) is also called "PCP." It is a lung infection that may infect the rest of the body. You may have a fever, breathing problems, or feel tired.
  • Toxoplasmosis (tox-o-plaz-mo-sis) is an infection of the brain and spinal cord (nervous system). It may cause you to feel tired or to have headaches or seizures (convulsions). You may be paralyzed (numb) on one side of the body.
  • Tuberculosis (too-ber-q-lo-sis) is a common early AIDS infection. It is also called "TB." This infection causes a long-term cough that may include coughing or spitting up blood. You may have fever, weight loss, or night sweats. Other signs depend upon the site of the infection.

Care: Caregivers and scientists have not yet found a cure for AIDS. See one caregiver who will get to know you well and assist you in deciding your care for many years. See this caregiver often. You may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information being given. Ask for written material or write down things that you may need to remember. You may find it helpful to have someone with you during appointments.

  • Your caregiver will watch your T-cell blood count for changes. With time, you will be started on different medicines and these medicines will be changed over time. It is very important to take them correctly. Let your caregiver know if you are having any problems taking your medications.
  • Follow a healthy lifestyle in order to help your immune system which helps prevent illnesses common with people who have AIDS. Eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, get enough rest, and work to prevent infection. If you smoke, you should quit. You should not drink alcohol or take "street" drugs.
  • Other care used to help AIDS may include acupuncture (ak-u-punk-sher), meditation, massage, and spiritual healing. Ask your caregiver for more information about these other types of treatments.

Coping: AIDS is a life-changing illness. Accepting that you have AIDS is hard. You may feel angry, scared, confused, and depressed. These feelings are common. Talk about them with your caregiver or with those close to you. Sometimes it helps both you and them to share feelings and fears. Ask your caregiver about support groups for people with AIDS. Such a group can give you support and information.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. To help with this plan, you must learn about AIDS and how it can be treated. You can then discuss treatment options with your caregivers. Work with them to decide what care will be used to treat you. You always have the right to refuse treatment.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

Learn more about Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome

Symptoms and treatments

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