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Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Mar 2, 2022.
What are HIV and AIDS?
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. A virus is a germ that may cause illness. Once you are infected with HIV, you will probably be infected for life. AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. To get AIDS, you must be infected with HIV and have a weakened immune system. Scientists are making progress with treatments for HIV, so infected people are living longer and healthier lives.
What causes HIV and AIDS?
Your immune system protects your body from infection. HIV weakens part of your immune system by damaging the T-helper cells (also called CD4+ cells). T-cells are a type of white blood cell that help your body fight certain kinds of infections. When you have AIDS, the number of T-cells is low and cannot help fight these infections. HIV also can cause certain types of cancers. These infections and cancers are what make people with HIV or AIDS sick. In some people, the infections and cancers may be life-threatening.
What are the signs and symptoms of HIV infection or AIDS?
You may have HIV in your body and a low T-cell count for some time and not know it. A healthy adult's T-cell count should be more than 500. If you have a positive HIV test and a T-cell count of less than 200, caregivers will diagnose AIDS. They will also diagnose AIDS if you have an infection that only affects people with weakened immunity. You may also have one or more of the following symptoms:
- Changes in your ability to think
- Changes in your coordination (the way muscles work together)
- Diarrhea and weight loss
- Fever and night sweats
- Joint pain
- Skin rashes and mouth, throat, vagina, or rectum sores
- Swollen glands in your neck, jaw, armpit, or groin
How is HIV treated?
There is no known cure for HIV or AIDS. Treatment of HIV focuses on decreasing the amount of the virus in your body and preventing infections.
- Blood tests: You will need to have your blood tested to check your T-cell count. A healthy adult's T-cell count should be more than 500. A T-cell count less than 200 means you are at a higher risk of getting sick, and that you have AIDS. Your caregiver will watch your response to treatment by checking your T-cell count and your viral load.
- Medicines: You will be started on medicines. These medicines may change often over time. HIV can become resistant to certain medicines, making it harder to treat. It is very important to take all medicines correctly. Let your caregiver know if you are having any problems taking your medicine. Some medicines to treat HIV may not work for you. Caregivers will do tests before you begin these medicines to check if they might work for you.
- Treat any other medical conditions: You may have other sexually transmitted diseases, such as herpes or syphilis. You should be tested for such diseases as tuberculosis (a lung disease) or hepatitis (a liver disease). It is very important to treat these diseases as soon as possible.
- Self-care: Follow a healthy lifestyle to help your immune system. Eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, get enough rest, and take steps to prevent infections. This includes not smoking, drinking alcohol, or taking illegal drugs.
The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.
How is HIV spread from person to person?
The following are ways that HIV may be spread:
- Contact with blood and certain body fluids (sperm, vaginal fluids, and breast milk)
- Sex with someone who has HIV, especially if you do not use a latex condom
- Drugs injected with used equipment
- Infected mother to her baby before or during birth or through breastfeeding
What is not true about how HIV is spread?
There are many false beliefs about how HIV may be spread from person to person. The following are the ways HIV is not spread:
- Sharing food, plates, cups, or silverware
- Being bitten by a mosquito or other insect
- Sneezing or coughing
- Swimming in public pools
- Being in contact with toilet seats, clothes, or sheets
- Touching the skin of a person who has HIV
What medical problems am I at risk for if I have AIDS?
AIDS makes it hard for your body to fight off germs. You can get infected with germs that do not bother most people, often in the lungs or brain. You may also get some rare kinds of pneumonia or cancer. People with AIDS can get all of the same infections that a person without AIDS can get. These infections become more severe and spread faster in people with HIV or AIDS.
- Candida: This is a fungal infection that may occur in the mouth. It is also called thrush. It looks like a white coating over your tongue and in your mouth.
- Cytomegalovirus: This is also called CMV. It is a virus that may cause you to feel tired or to have a fever. You also may 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 include diarrhea and blindness.
- Kaposi sarcoma: KS is a common cancer in AIDS patients. This cancer may first show up on the legs or mouth as purple-red sores. These sores may spread slowly. KS also may be in lymph nodes and other places inside your body. KS in the mouth may be painful. Caregivers may do a test called a tissue biopsy to see if you have KS.
- Lymphoma: This is a type of cancer that people who have AIDS may get. It may be found in the gastrointestinal tract, brain, or spinal cord. Lymphoma also may be found in the bone marrow, liver, or lungs. The signs of lymphoma depend on the body organ affected.
- Mycobacterium avium complex: This common AIDS infection is also called MAC. Signs include a long-term cough, coughing or spitting up blood, and abdominal pain. You may have diarrhea, fever, weight loss, or night sweats. You may feel tired.
- Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia: This lung infection is also called PCP. It may also infect other places in your body. You may have a fever or breathing problems, or you may feel tired.
- Toxoplasmosis: This is an infection of the brain. It may cause you to feel tired or have headaches or seizures. You may also have a fever and feel confused. You may be numb or weak in one part of your body.
- Tuberculosis: This is also called TB. Any person can get this infection, but it spreads faster in people with AIDS. The infection causes a long-term cough that may include coughing or spitting up blood. You may have fever, weight loss, and night sweats. Other signs depend on the site of the infection.
What are the risks of HIV and AIDS?
Medicines or other treatments for HIV and AIDS may cause serious side effects, such as liver disease. Medicines may make you feel very tired or sick to your stomach. You may throw up. Other side effects may include burning, tingling, and numbness in your hands, legs, and feet. If you are taking several different medicines, they may not work well together. This may make you very sick. If you are HIV-positive, your treatments may not stop you from getting AIDS. Not all AIDS-related infections and cancers can be stopped, even with treatment. If your infections or cancers are not treated, they may spread, and you could die.
How do I care for myself when I have HIV or AIDS?
- There is no known cure for AIDS. Treatment of HIV and AIDS focuses on decreasing the amount of HIV in the body and preventing AIDS-related infections. HIV tests today are simple and fast. You may have the results in as soon as 20 minutes. Scientists are working to find a vaccine for HIV and AIDS. You may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information on HIV and AIDS being given to you. Ask for written material or write down things that you may need to remember.
- Your caregiver watches your response to treatment by checking your T-cell blood count and your viral load. You will be started on medicines, and these medicines may change often over time. Some medicines to treat HIV and AIDS may not work for you. Caregivers will do tests before you begin these medicines to check if they might work for you. HIV can become resistant to certain medicines, which makes it harder to treat. It is very important to take all medicines correctly. Let your caregiver know if you are having any problems taking your medicine.
- Follow a healthy lifestyle to help your immune system. This may help prevent illnesses common in people who have HIV. 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 illegal drugs. Other care you may think about includes meditation, massage, and spiritual healing. Ask your caregiver for more information about these types of treatments.
- You may have other sexually transmitted disease, such as herpes or syphilis. If you do, you are even more likely to spread HIV to others. You should be tested for diseases, such as tuberculosis or hepatitis (a liver disease). It is very important to treat these diseases as soon as possible.
How can I prevent the spread of HIV or AIDS to others?
- Tell all caregivers, such as your doctor and dentist, that you have HIV or AIDS.
- Tell your sex or needle-sharing partners that you have HIV or AIDS.
- Use a latex condom correctly each time you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Ask your caregiver for more information about how to use condoms the right way.
- Do not donate (give) sperm, organs, or body tissue.
- Do not risk getting your body fluids near the mouth, eyes, anus, or open skin cuts of others.
- Do not share sex toys.
- Do not have oral sex without using a condom or latex barrier. Do not lick your partner's anal area. Other diseases also may be spread by doing these things.
- Do not donate blood or blood products.
- Do not share needles or other equipment if you use injectable drugs.
- Do not share razors, toothbrushes, tweezers, or other objects. They may cut the skin and cause others to come into contact with blood.
- Do not pierce your ears, navel, or any other place on your body. Piercing can cause bleeding, which may spread HIV.
Where can I find support and more information?
You and those close to you may feel angry, sad, or frightened. These feelings are normal. Talk to your caregivers, family, or friends about your feelings. You may want to join a support group. This is a group of people who also are HIV-positive or have AIDS. You can also contact the following:
- AIDS Health Project
1930 Market St.
San Francisco , CA 94102
Phone: 1- 415 - 476-3902
Web Address: http://www.ucsf-ahp.org
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta , GA 30333
Phone: 1- 800 - 232-4636
Web Address: http://www.cdc.gov
When should I contact my caregiver?
Contact your caregiver if:
- You have a fever.
- You have chills or night sweats.
- You have sore or large lymph nodes in your neck, jaw, armpit, or groin.
- You feel tired, and it does not go away.
- You have diarrhea that does not get better.
- You have lost more than 10 pounds in a short period of time.
- Your skin is bleeding or bruising.
- You have white spots or sores in your mouth, throat, vagina, or rectum.
- You have a cough, shortness of breath, or chest tightness.
- You notice changes in your menstrual cycle or flow.
- Your skin is itchy, swollen, or has a rash. This may mean you are allergic to your medicine.
- You have other body changes that worry you.
- You have questions or concerns about your illness, medicine, or treatment.
When should I seek immediate care?
Seek care immediately or call 911 if:
- You cannot think clearly.
- You have a severe headache.
- You have a stiff neck.
- You have problems seeing.
- You have problems with balance, walking, or speech.
- You have weakness in an arm or leg.
- You are too short of breath to move.
- You have chest pain.
- You are so weak that you cannot stand up.
- You are unable to drink liquids.
- You are so depressed you feel you cannot cope any longer.
You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment.
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 Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
- 9 Facts About Current HIV Treatment
- Drug Treatment of HIV and AIDS Complications
- HIV / AIDS Opportunistic Infections and Symptoms
- HIV and AIDS Center
- HIV and AIDS Medications and Drug Classes
- HIV Prevention: PrEP and Other Options
- National HIV Testing Day
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