Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus
that causes the condition acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The virus
attacks a specific type of immune system cell in the body, known as CD4 helper
lymphocyte cells. HIV destroys these cells, making it harder for your body to
fight off other infections. When you have HIV, even a minor infection (like a
cold) can be much more severe because your body has difficulty healing.
HIV is transmitted through contact with the
following bodily fluids:
Sexual contact and sharing contaminated needles —
even tattoo or piercing needles — can result in the transmission of HIV.
Not only does HIV attack CD4 cells, it also uses
the cells to make more of the virus. When the virus has destroyed a certain
number of CD4 cells, doctors will call this stage AIDS. A person with AIDS is
very vulnerable to infections, such as pneumonia. People with lowered immune systems can also
get cancers, such as lymphoma.
HIV doesn’t always multiply rapidly. It can take
years for a person’s immune system to be affected enough to have symptoms. A
person with HIV will often progress through several phases before their
condition is considered AIDS. Taking medications carefully can help to slow the
Stages of HIV
Doctors have classified three HIV stages: acute HIV
infection, chronic HIV infection, and AIDS.
Acute HIV infection
a person becomes infected with HIV, an acute infection will take place two to
four weeks later. At this time, the virus is multiplying in the body, attacking
CD4 cells. This initial infection can result in flu-like symptoms. Examples of
these symptoms include:
However, not all
people with HIV experience initial flu-like symptoms. The flu symptoms are due
to the increase of HIV viruses in the body. During this time, the amount of CD4
cells starts to fall very quickly. The immune system then kicks in, which
causes CD4 levels to once again rise. However, the CD4 levels may not return to
their preinfection height.
In addition to causing
symptoms, the acute stage is when HIV is at its greatest risk for transmission to
other people. This is because HIV levels are very high at this time. The acute
stage typically lasts between several weeks and months.
Chronic HIV infection
chronic HIV infection stage is known as the latent or asymptomatic stage. During
this stage, you usually won’t have as many symptoms as you did during the acute
phase. The virus multiplies less quickly during the chronic stage. However, you
can still transmit the HIV infection.
any treatment, the chronic HIV infection stage lasts anywhere from 10 to 12
years before advancing to AIDS. If a person is taking treatments for HIV, the
chronic HIV infection stage may last several decades. According to AIDS.gov, if you take
treatments for HIV and your HIV levels are low, you can live a normal to nearly
normal life span. It’s also possible that the infection will never progress to
the AIDS phase.
A doctor diagnoses a person with AIDS when they have
a CD4 count of less than 200 cells/3 (a measurement of the cells in the
blood) and they’ve had an opportunistic infection, such as tuberculosis, cancer, or
pneumonia. A normal CD4 count
ranges from 500–1,600 cells/mm3 in healthy adults.
when a person’s HIV progresses to AIDS, the survival rate is usually about three
What factors affect disease progression?
HIV does progress in phases, some people go through the phases more quickly
than others. Taking medications, known as antiretroviral therapy (ART), can
slow this progression for more people. Factors that affect HIV progression can
- Your age when your symptoms started: Being
older can result in faster progression of HIV.
- Your health before treatment: If you had
other diseases, such as tuberculosis, hepatitis C, or other sexually
transmitted diseases, it can affect your overall health.
- How soon you were diagnosed after you
were infected: The longer between your diagnosis and treatment, the faster the
disease can progress.
- Your lifestyle: Maintaining an unhealthy
lifestyle, such as having a poor diet and experiencing severe stress, can aid
- Whether you take your medications as
- Your genetic history: Some people just
seem to progress more quickly through their disease.
Some factors can delay
or slow the progression of HIV. These include:
- taking your ART medications as your
- seeing your doctor as recommended for HIV
- eating a healthy diet
- taking care of yourself, including having
protected sex, trying to minimize stress in your life, and sleeping regularly
Living a healthy
lifestyle and seeing your doctor regularly can make a big difference in your
How is HIV treated?
for HIV typically involve ART. This isn’t a specific regimen, but instead a
combination of several drugs. There
are currently 25 different FDA-approved medicines to treat HIV. ART works to
prevent the virus from copying itself. This maintains your immunity levels
while slowing the progression of HIV.
doctor will take into consideration your health history, the levels of the
virus in your blood, possible side effects, costs, and any allergies you may
have before prescribing medications. There are six classes of HIV drugs. Most
doctors will start you on a combination of three medications from at least two
different drug classes. These classes are:
- CCR5 antagonists (CCR5s)
- fusion inhibitors
- integrase stand transfer inhibitors (INSTIs)
- non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase
- nucleoside reverse transcriptase
- protease inhibitors
Your doctor may
prescribe several different medication types before you find the best regimen
How is HIV prevented?
HIV is an especially dangerous virus because it
doesn’t cause a lot of outward or noticeable symptoms until the disease has
progressed. For this reason, it’s important to understand how HIV is
transmitted and ways you can work to prevent transmission.
be transmitted by:
- having sex, including oral, vaginal, and
- sharing needles, including tattoo
needles, needles used for body piercing, and needles used for injecting drugs
- coming in contact with body fluids, such
as blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk
HIV is not transmitted by:
- breathing the same air as an infected
- getting bitten by a mosquito or other
- hugging, holding hands with, kissing, or
touching an infected person
- touching a door handle or toilet seat an
infected person has used
Keeping this in mind,
some of the ways you can prevent HIV include:
- refraining from oral, anal, or vaginal
sex (known as the abstinence method)
- always using a latex barrier, such as a
condom, when you have oral, anal, or vaginal sex
- never sharing needles with others
If you’ve had
unprotected sex or shared needles with anyone in the past, doctors usually
recommend getting an HIV test at least once a year. Symptoms can take years to
appear, which is why it’s so important to get tested regularly.
Advances in HIV
treatments mean that people can live longer with the condition. Getting tested
regularly and taking good care of yourself is vital to keeping your disease
from progressing to the AIDS phase.