HIV/AIDS

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What is HIV/AIDS?

HIV/AIDS is the acronym for the human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, which is incurable.

More than 1 million people in the United States currently are living with HIV/AIDS, and more than half a million people have died of AIDS since the U.S. epidemic began in 1981, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Source: NIAID).

HIV/AIDS attacks the body’s immune system and is most often contracted through sexual contact. HIV/AIDS can also be passed to another person through contact with blood or body fluids, such as through blood transfusions, sharing needles contaminated with HIV, and during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Currently there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, and it is eventually fatal. However, prompt diagnosis and treatment can reduce or delay the onset of some serious complications, such as opportunistic infections, and can improve quality of life. Prompt diagnosis can also minimize the spread of the disease to others. In some cases, rapid treatment with medication can prevent the development of HIV/AIDS after exposure to the HIV virus. This prophylactic treatment needs to begin within 72 hours after exposure to HIV/AIDS.

What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?

The symptoms of HIV/AIDS infection result from the HIV attacking the cells of the body’s immune system. Early in the disease, many people with HIV infection have no symptoms. Some people may experience flu-like symptoms that occur about four to eight weeks after infection. Early symptoms of HIV/AIDS can include:

Serious late-stage symptoms and complications of HIV/AIDS

Mild, early-stage symptoms of HIV/AIDS generally go away within several weeks after exposure to the virus.  There may be no symptoms as many as 10 years or longer after HIV infection. Over this time, HIV gradually destroys the helper T cells of the immune system. This leads to a weakening of the body’s immune system, which can result in: 

  • Certain cancers such as Kaposi’s sarcoma

  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance due to long-term diarrhea

  • Depression

  • Encephalitis

  • Hepatitis

  • Herpes

  • Neurological problems such as memory loss, confusion, and dementia

  • Pneumonia

  • Serious opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis, cytomegalovirus, meningitis, yeast infections, and toxoplasmosis 

  • Shingles

  • Wasting syndrome

What causes HIV/AIDS?

HIV/AIDS is caused by infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV/AIDS is most often contracted through sexual contact. Any person who engages in sexual activity, including vaginal, oral, or anal sex, can contract and pass on an HIV infection. This includes heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual men and women. The more sexual partners a person has, the greater the risk of catching and passing on HIV/AIDS.

HIV/AIDS can also be passed to another person through other means, such as contact with blood or bodily fluids. This can occur during blood transfusions or by sharing needles contaminated with HIV. Contracting HIV/AIDs through transfusions of blood products has become very rare since 1985 because donated blood products are now tested for HIV.

HIV can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.

How is HIV/AIDS diagnosed?

HIV infection is diagnosed with a blood test that can reveal the presence of the specific antibodies (infection-fighting substances) that the body makes in response to the HIV infection. HIV may not be detectable in the first one to three months after infection, and a series of tests may be needed to diagnose or rule out HIV infection. A diagnosis of AIDS is generally made when an HIV infection has resulted in serious complications and opportunistic infections are occurring.

What are the risk factors for HIV/AIDS?

A number of factors are linked to an increased risk of developing HIV/AIDS including:

  • Being born to or breastfed by a mother with HIV/AIDS

  • Having had a transfusion of blood products before 1985 

  • Having another type of sexually transmitted disease, such as chlamydia, genital herpes, HPV, or gonorrhea

  • Having certain infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and hepatitis

  • Having sex for money or drugs

  • Having sex, including vaginal, oral, or anal sex, with men who have sex with men

  • Having sex, including vaginal, oral, or anal sex, with multiple partners

  • Sharing contaminated needles to inject drugs or for tattooing

Reducing your risk of HIV/AIDS

Not all people who are at risk for HIV/AIDS will develop the disease. You may be able to lower your risk of contracting HIV/AIDS by:

  • Abstaining from sexual activity

  • Engaging in sexual activity only within a mutually monogamous relationship in which neither partner is infected with HIV or has risk factors for the infection

  • Getting regular, routine medical care and prenatal care

  • Not sharing needles with others

  • Seeking medical care as soon as possible after possible exposure to HIV/AIDS or high-risk sexual activity

  • Using latex condoms properly

How is HIV/AIDS treated?

Treatment of HIV starts with seeking regular medical care. This allows your health care professional to best evaluate your symptoms and risks and provide behavior counseling and regular testing for HIV infection as appropriate.

Regular medical care can increase your chances of catching and treating HIV in its earliest stages before serious complications occur. In some cases, rapid treatment with medication can prevent the development of HIV/AIDS after exposure to HIV. This prophylactic treatment needs to begin within 72 hours after exposure to HIV/AIDS.

HIV is not curable, but prompt diagnosis and treatment can help to reduce or delay the onset of serious complications, improve quality of life, and minimize the spread of the disease to others. You can best manage HIV/AIDS by consistently following your treatment plan.

Antiretroviral medications for HIV/AIDS

Treatment of HIV/AIDS generally includes drugs called antiretroviral medications, which can help people with HIV lead longer lives. Antiretroviral medications hinder the ability of HIV to reproduce, which slows the spread of HIV in the body. These medications must be taken daily and doses cannot be skipped. Over time, the potency of one drug may decline and other drugs may be substituted. Antiretroviral medications include:

  • Entry inhibitors

  • Fusion inhibitors

  • Integrase inhibitors

  • Protease inhibitor

  • Reverse transcriptase inhibitors

What are the possible complications of HIV/AIDS?

Complications of HIV/AIDS are life threatening. You can minimize or delay the risk of developing serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Serious complications of HIV/AIDS include:

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Certain cancers such as Kaposi’s sarcoma and lymphoma

  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance due to long-term diarrhea

  • Dementia

  • Depression

  • Metabolic syndrome (associated with use of protease inhibitors)

  • Neurological  problems, such as memory loss, confusion, and encephalitis

  • Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia

  • Serious opportunistic infections, such as tuberculosis, cytomegalovirus, meningitis, yeast infections, and toxoplasmosis 

  • Wasting syndrome

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 30
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Cohen MS, Hellmann N, Levy JA, et al. The spread, treatment, and prevention of HIV-1: evolution of a global pandemic. J Clin Invest 2008; 118:1244.
  3. Sterne JA, Hernán MA, Ledergerber B, et al. Long-term effectiveness of potent antiretroviral therapy in preventing AIDS and death: a prospective cohort study. Lancet 2005; 366:378.