Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The virus weakens a person’s ability to fight infections and cancer. People with HIV are said to have AIDS when they develop certain infections or cancers or when their CD4 (T-cell) count is less than 200. CD4 count is determined by a blood test in a doctor’s office.
Having HIV does not always mean that you have AIDS. It can take many years for people with the virus to develop AIDS. HIV and AIDS cannot be cured. However with the medications available today, it is possible to have a normal lifespan with little or minimal interruption in quality of life. There are ways to help people stay healthy and live longer.
How Does HIV and AIDS Cause Illness?
HIV attacks and destroys a type of white blood cell called a CD4 cell, commonly called the T-cell. This cell’s main function is to fight disease. When a person’s CD4 cell count gets low, they are more susceptible to illnesses.
What Is AIDS?
AIDS is the more advanced stage of HIV infection. When the immune system CD4 cells drop to a very low level, a person’s ability to fight infection is lost. In addition, there are several conditions that occur in people with HIV infection with this degree of immune system failure — these are called AIDS-defining illnesses.
According to the CDC, 1,051,875 people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with AIDS since the disease was first diagnosed in 1981. They also estimate that 583,298 have died from the disease in the U.S.
How Do People Get HIV?
A person gets HIV when an infected person’s body fluids (blood, semen, fluids from the vagina or breast milk) enter his or her bloodstream. The virus can enter the blood through linings in the mouth, anus, or sex organs (the penis and vagina), or through broken skin.
Both men and women can spread HIV. A person with HIV can feel OK and still give the virus to others. Pregnant women with HIV also can give the virus to their babies.
Common ways people get HIV:
- Sharing a needle to take drugs.
- Having unprotected sex with an infected person.
You cannot get HIV from:
- Touching or hugging someone who has HIV/AIDS.
- Public bathrooms or swimming pools.
- Sharing cups, utensils, or telephones with someone who has HIV/AIDS.
- Bug bites.
Some people get flu-like symptoms within a month after they have been infected. These symptoms often go away within a week to a month. A person can have HIV for many years before feeling ill.
As the disease progresses, both women and men may experience yeast infections on the tongue (thrush), and women may develop severe vaginal yeast infections or pelvic inflammatory disease. Shingles is often seen early on, often before someone is diagnosed with HIV.
Signs that HIV is turning into AIDS include:
- A fever that won’t go away
- Sweating while you sleep
- Feeling sick all the time
- Losing weight
- Oral thrush
- Swollen glands (neck, groin, or underarms)
Feeling tired all the time (not from stress or lack of sleep)
What Infections Do People With AIDS Get?
People with AIDS are extremely vulnerable to infection, called AIDS-defining illnesses, and often exhibit the following conditions:
Kaposi’s sarcoma, a skin tumor that looks like dark or purple blotches on the skin or in the mouth
Mental changes and headaches caused by fungal infections or tumors in the brain and spinal cord
Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing because of infections of the lungs
- Chronic diarrhea
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Today, there are a variety of treatments that, when used in combination can significantly slow down and in some cases stop altogether, the progression of HIV infection.
- After HIV infection is confirmed, your doctor will start you on a drug regimen consisting of several drugs; combinations of different types of anti-HIV drugs sometimes are called HAART, for highly-active antiretroviral therapy (HIV is a kind of virus called a retrovirus).
- Taking HAART therapy is very manageable yet isn’t necessarily easy. These drugs must be taken at the right time, every single day. Also, a range of side effects may occur, including: diarrhea, nausea, rash, vivid dreams, or abnormal distribution of body fat. And, especially if medications are taken incorrectly or inconsistently, the virus can mutate, or change, into a strain resistant to treatment. The good news is that there are now several HIV medications that are only taken once a day. If there is resistant virus, however, these may not work and other medication options must be used. If your disease has progressed to AIDS, your treatment may also include drugs to combat and prevent certain infections.