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.
HIV is a sexually transmitted disease. It can also be spread by contact with infected blood, or from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding. It can take years before HIV weakens your immune system to the point that you have AIDS.
There's no cure for HIV/AIDS, but there are medications that can dramatically slow the progression of the disease. These drugs have reduced AIDS deaths in many developed nations. But HIV continues to decimate populations in Africa, Haiti and parts of Asia.
The symptoms of HIV and AIDS vary, depending on the phase of infection.
Although the symptoms of primary HIV infection may be mild enough to go unnoticed, the amount of virus in the blood stream (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
Clinical latent infection typically lasts 8 to 10 years. A few people stay in this stage even longer, but others progress to more-severe disease much sooner.
Early symptomatic HIV infection
Progression to AIDS
When to see a doctor
Scientists believe a virus similar to HIV first occurred in some populations of chimps and monkeys in Africa, where they're hunted for food. Contact with an infected monkey's blood during butchering or cooking may have allowed the virus to cross into humans and become HIV.
How does HIV become AIDS?
To be diagnosed with AIDS, you must have a CD4 count under 200 or experience an AIDS-defining complication, such as:
How HIV is transmitted
You can become infected with HIV in several ways, including:
When HIV/AIDS first surfaced in the United States, it predominantly affected homosexual men. The type of HIV found in many African nations is more easily 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:
HIV infection weakens your immune system, making you highly susceptible to all sorts of infections and certain types of cancers.
Infections common to HIV/AIDS:
Cancers common to HIV/AIDS
Preparing for your appointment
If you think you might have HIV infection, you're likely to start by seeing your family doctor. You may be referred to an infectious disease specialist.
What you can do
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
HIV is most commonly diagnosed by testing your blood or saliva for the presence of antibodies to the virus. Unfortunately, these types of HIV tests aren't accurate immediately after infection because it takes time for your body to develop these antibodies — usually up to 12 weeks. In rare cases, it can take up to six months for an HIV antibody test to become positive.
A newer type of test checks for HIV antigen, a protein produced by the virus immediately after infection. This test can confirm a diagnosis within days of infection. An earlier diagnosis may prompt people to take extra precautions to prevent transmission of the virus to others.
Tests to tailor treatment
Tests for complications
Treatments and drugs
There is no cure for HIV/AIDS, but a variety of drugs can be used in combination to control the virus. Each of the classes of anti-HIV drugs blocks the virus in different ways. It's best to combine at least three drugs from two different classes to avoid creating strains of HIV that are immune to single drugs. The classes of anti-HIV drugs include:
When to start treatment
Treatment can be difficult
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 is not 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:
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
Supplements that may be dangerous
Coping and support
Receiving a diagnosis of any life-threatening illness is devastating. But the emotional, social and financial consequences of HIV/AIDS can make coping with this illness especially difficult — not only for you but also for those closest to you.
Fortunately, a wide range of services and resources are available to people with HIV. Most HIV/AIDS clinics have social workers, counselors or nurses who can help you with problems directly or put you in touch with people who can. They can arrange for transportation to and from doctor appointments, help with housing and child care, deal with employment and legal issues, and see you through financial emergencies.
Coming to terms with your illness may be the hardest thing you've ever done. For some people, having a strong faith or a sense of something greater than themselves makes this process easier. Others seek counseling from someone who understands HIV/AIDS. Still others make a conscious decision to experience their lives as fully and intensely as they can or to help other people who have the disease.
There's no vaccine to prevent HIV infection and no cure for AIDS. But it's possible to protect yourself and others from infection. That means educating yourself about HIV and avoiding any behavior that allows HIV-infected fluids — blood, semen, vaginal secretions and breast milk — into your body.
To help prevent the spread of HIV, you should:
Last Updated: 2011-10-20
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