Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). By damaging your immune system, HIV interferes with your body’s ability to fight the organisms that cause disease.
The symptoms of HIV and AIDS vary, depending on the phase of infection.
Primary infection (Acute HIV)
The majority of people infected by HIV develop a flu-like illness within a month or two after the virus enters the body. This illness, known as primary or acute HIV infection, may last for a few weeks. Possible signs and symptoms include:
- Muscle aches and joint pain
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph glands, mainly on the neck
Although the symptoms of primary HIV infection may be mild enough to go unnoticed, the amount of virus in the bloodstream (viral load) is particularly high at this time. As a result, HIV infection spreads more efficiently during primary infection than during the next stage of infection.
Clinical latent infection (Chronic HIV)
In some people, persistent swelling of lymph nodes occurs during clinical latent HIV. Otherwise, there are no specific signs and symptoms. HIV remains in the body, however, and in infected white blood cells.
Clinical latent infection generally lasts around 10 years if you’re not receiving antiretroviral therapy. This phase can last for decades in people taking antiretroviral medications. But some people progress to more severe disease much sooner.
Early symptomatic HIV infection
As the virus continues to multiply and destroy immune cells, you may develop mild infections or chronic signs and symptoms such as:
- Swollen lymph nodes — often one of the first signs of HIV infection
- Weight loss
- Oral yeast infection (thrush)
- Shingles (herpes zoster)
Progression to AIDS
If you receive no treatment for your HIV infection, the disease typically progresses to AIDS in about 10 years. By the time AIDS develops, your immune system has been severely damaged, making you susceptible to opportunistic infections — diseases that wouldn’t usually trouble a person with a healthy immune system.
The signs and symptoms of some of these infections may include:
- Soaking night sweats
- Recurring fever
- Chronic diarrhea
- Persistent white spots or unusual lesions on your tongue or in your mouth
- Persistent, unexplained fatigue
- Weight loss
- Skin rashes or bumps
When to see a doctor
If you think you may have been infected with HIV or are at risk of contracting the virus, see a health care provider as soon as possible.
HIV is a viral infection that can be transmitted through sexual contact, through blood or from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding.
How does HIV become AIDS?
HIV destroys CD4 cells — a specific type of white blood cell that plays a large role in helping your body fight disease. Your immune system weakens as more CD4 cells are killed. You can have an HIV infection for years before it progresses to AIDS.
People infected with HIV progress to AIDS when their CD4 count falls below 200 or they experience an AIDS-defining complication.
How HIV is transmitted
To become infected with HIV, infected blood, semen or vaginal secretions must enter your body. You can’t become infected through ordinary contact — hugging, kissing, dancing or shaking hands — with someone who has HIV or AIDS. HIV can’t be transmitted through the air, water or insect bites.
You can become infected with HIV in several ways, including:
- By having sex. You may become infected if you have vaginal, anal or oral sex with an infected partner whose blood, semen or vaginal secretions enter your body. The virus can enter your body through mouth sores or small tears that sometimes develop in the rectum or vagina during sexual activity.
- From blood transfusions. In some cases, the virus may be transmitted through blood transfusions.
- By sharing needles. HIV can be transmitted through needles and syringes contaminated with infected blood.
- During pregnancy or delivery or through breast-feeding. Infected mothers can infect their babies. But by receiving treatment for HIV infection during pregnancy, mothers significantly lower the risk to their babies.
When HIV/AIDS first surfaced in the United States, it mainly affected men who had sex with men. However, now it’s clear that HIV is also spread through heterosexual sex.
Anyone of any age, race, sex or sexual orientation can be infected, but you’re at greatest risk of HIV/AIDS if you:
- Have unprotected sex. Unprotected sex means having sex without using a new latex or polyurethane condom every time. Anal sex is more risky than is vaginal sex. The risk increases if you have multiple sexual partners.
- Have another STI. Many sexually transmitted infections (STIs) produce open sores on your genitals. These sores act as doorways for HIV to enter your body.
- Use intravenous drugs. People who use intravenous drugs often share needles and syringes. This exposes them to droplets of other people’s blood.
- Are an uncircumcised man. Studies indicate that lack of circumcision increases the risk of heterosexual transmission of HIV.
HIV infection weakens your immune system, making you highly susceptible to numerous infections and certain types of cancers.
Infections common to HIV/AIDS
- Tuberculosis (TB). In resource-poor nations, TB is the most common opportunistic infection associated with HIV and a leading cause of death among people with AIDS.
- This common herpes virus is transmitted in body fluids such as saliva, blood, urine, semen and breast milk. A healthy immune system inactivates the virus, and it remains dormant in your body. If your immune system weakens, the virus resurfaces — causing damage to your eyes, digestive tract, lungs or other organs.
- Candidiasis is a common HIV-related infection. It causes inflammation and a thick, white coating on the mucous membranes of your mouth, tongue, esophagus or vagina.
- Cryptococcal meningitis. Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes and fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord (meninges). Cryptococcal meningitis is a common central nervous system infection associated with HIV, caused by a fungus found in soil.
- This potentially deadly infection is caused by Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite spread primarily by cats. Infected cats pass the parasites in their stools, and the parasites may then spread to other animals and humans.
- This infection is caused by an intestinal parasite that’s commonly found in animals. You contract cryptosporidiosis when you ingest contaminated food or water. The parasite grows in your intestines and bile ducts, leading to severe, chronic diarrhea in people with AIDS.
Cancers common to HIV/AIDS
- Kaposi’s sarcoma.
- Wasting syndrome.
- Neurological complications.
- Kidney disease.
Tests and diagnosis
HIV is most commonly diagnosed by testing your blood or saliva for antibodies to the virus. Unfortunately, it takes time for your body to develop these antibodies — usually up to 12 weeks.
A newer type of test that checks for HIV antigen, a protein produced by the virus immediately after infection, can quickly confirm a diagnosis soon after infection. An earlier diagnosis may prompt people to take extra precautions to prevent transmission of the virus to others.
A Food and Drug Administration-approved home test is available. To do the test, you swab fluid from your upper and lower gums. If the test is positive, you need to see your doctor to confirm the diagnosis and discuss your treatment options. If the test is negative, it needs to be repeated in three months to confirm the results.
Tests to tailor treatment
If you receive a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS, several types of tests can help your doctor determine what stage of the disease you have. These tests include:
- CD4 count. CD4 cells are a type of white blood cell that’s specifically targeted and destroyed by HIV. Even if you have no symptoms, HIV infection progresses to AIDS when your CD4 count dips below 200.
- Viral load. This test measures the amount of virus in your blood. Studies have shown that people with higher viral loads generally fare more poorly than do those with a lower viral load.
- Drug resistance. This blood test determines whether the strain of HIV you have will be resistant to certain anti-HIV medications.
Tests for complications
Your doctor might also order lab tests to check for other infections or complications, including:
- Sexually transmitted infections
- Liver or kidney damage
- Urinary tract infection
Treatments and drugs
There’s no cure for HIV/AIDS, but a variety of drugs can be used in combination to control the virus. Each class of anti-HIV drugs blocks the virus in different ways. It’s best to combine at least three drugs from two classes to avoid creating strains of HIV that are immune to single drugs.
The classes of anti-HIV drugs include:
- Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs). NNRTIs disable a protein needed by HIV to make copies of itself. Examples include efavirenz, etravirine and nevirapine.
- Nucleoside or nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs). NRTIs are faulty versions of building blocks that HIV needs to make copies of itself. Examples include Abacavir, and the combination drugs emtricitabine-tenofovir, and lamivudine-zidovudine.
- Protease inhibitors (PIs). PIs disable protease, another protein that HIV needs to make copies of itself. Examples include atazanavir, darunavir, fosamprenavir and indinavir.
- Entry or fusion inhibitors. These drugs block HIV’s entry into CD4 cells. Examples include enfuvirtide and maraviroc.
- Integrase inhibitors. These drugs work by disabling integrase, a protein that HIV uses to insert its genetic material into CD4 cells. Examples include raltegravir, elvitegravir and dolutegravir.
When to start treatment
Everyone with HIV infection, regardless of CD4 count, should be offered antiviral medication.
HIV therapy is particularly important for the following situations:
- You have severe symptoms.
- You have an opportunistic infection.
- Your CD4 count is under 350.
- You’re pregnant.
- You have HIV-related kidney disease.
- You’re being treated for hepatitis B or C.
Treatment can be difficult
HIV treatment regimens may involve taking multiple pills at specific times every day for the rest of your life. Side effects can include:
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Heart disease
- Weakened bones or bone loss
- Breakdown of muscle tissue (rhabdomyolysis)
- Abnormal cholesterol levels
- Higher blood sugar levels
Other diseases and treatment
Some health issues that are a natural part of aging may be more difficult to manage if you have HIV. Some medications that are common for age-related cardiovascular, metabolic and bone conditions, for example, may not interact well with anti-HIV medications. Talk to your doctor about other conditions for which you’re taking medication.
Your doctor will monitor your viral load and CD4 counts to determine your response to treatment. Viral load should be tested at the start of treatment and then every three to four months during therapy. CD4 counts should be checked every three to six months.
HIV treatment should reduce your viral load to the point that it’s undetectable. That doesn’t mean your HIV is gone. It just means that the test isn’t sensitive enough to detect it. You can still transmit HIV to others when your viral load is undetectable.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Although it’s important to receive medical treatment for HIV/AIDS, it’s also essential to take an active role in your own care. The following suggestions may help you stay healthy longer:
- Eat healthy foods.
- Avoid certain foods. Foodborne illnesses can be especially severe in people who are infected with HIV. Avoid unpasteurized dairy products, raw eggs and raw seafood such as oysters, sushi or sashimi. Cook meat until it’s well-done.
- Get immunizations.
- Take care with companion animals.
People who are infected with HIV sometimes try dietary supplements that claim to boost the immune system or counteract side effects of anti-HIV drugs.
Supplements that may be helpful
- Whey protein.
Supplements that may be dangerous
- John’s wort.
- Garlic supplements.
To help prevent the spread of HIV:
- Use a new condom every time you have sex.
- Consider the drug Truvada. Use of the combination drug emtricitabine-tenofovir (Truvada) can reduce the risk of sexually transmitted HIV infection in those who are at high risk. Truvada is also used as an HIV treatment along with other medications.
- Tell your sexual partners if you have HIV.
- Use a clean needle.
- If you’re pregnant, get medical care right away.
- Consider male circumcision.