with HIV/AIDS can result in a weakened immune system, making the body more
susceptible to a host of illnesses. Over time, the virus attacks the body’s CD4
cells, which play a critical role in maintaining a healthy immune system.
Patients can reduce their likelihood of developing common life-threatening
illnesses by taking a variety of proactive, daily action steps.
What Are HIV/AIDS-Related Opportunistic
illnesses (OIs) capitalize on weakened immune systems. While these illnesses
may have little to no significant impact to an individual with a healthy immune
system, they can cause devastating effects for HIV/AIDS patients. OIs typically
present in HIV/AIDS patients when their CD4 count drops below 200 and are
considered AIDS-defining conditions. In general, an HIV patient will not
present with OIs if his or her CD4 count is above 500.
following 20 OIs have been defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention as AIDS-defining illnesses:
- Candidiasis: Common fungal
infection that can be treated with antifungal medications following a
simple visual examination.
- Cervical cancer
- Coccidioidomycosis: Common fungal
infection that can lead to pneumonia if left untreated.
- Cryptococcosis: Fungal infection
that often enters through the lungs, quickly spreading to the patient’s
brain, often leading to cryptococcal meningitis. Left untreated, this
fungal infection is often fatal.
- Cryptosporidiosis: This diarrheal
disease often becomes chronic; it is characterized by severe diarrhea and
- Cytomegalovirus. This common
global virus affects most adults during their lifetime. In HIV/AIDS
patients, it often presents with eye or gastrointestinal infections.
- HIV-related encephalopathy: Often
referred to as HIV/AIDs-related dementia, it can be defined as a
degenerative brain condition affecting patients with CD4 counts of less
than 100. Current estimates suggest it impacts roughly 25 percent of AIDS
- Herpes simplex (chronic) and herpes zoster:
Herpes simplex can be characterized as red, painful sores that appear on
the mouth or genital area. Herpes zoster, or shingles, presents with
painful blisters on skin surfaces. While there is no cure for either,
medications are available to alleviate some symptoms.
- Histoplasmosis: This environmental
fungal infection is commonly treated with antibiotics.
- Isosporiasis: This parasitic
fungus develops when patients drink or come into contact with contaminated
food and water sources. It is currently treated with antiparasitic drugs.
- Kaposi’s sarcoma: This form of
cancer often presents with either oral lesions or lesions covering the
skin surfaces. Current treatments include radiation and/or chemotherapy to
shrink the tumors and antiretroviral therapy to boost the body’s CD4 cell
- Lymphoma: A variety of cancers
frequently present in HIV/AIDS patients. Treatment will vary based upon
the cancer type and condition of the patient.
- Mycobacterium avium complex: These
environmental bacteria often present in patients with severely compromised
immune systems, CD4 cell counts of less than 50. If this bacteria enters
the bloodstream, it often results in death.
- Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia:
This OI is currently the leading cause of death in HIV/AIDS patients.
Careful monitoring and antibiotic therapies are currently used to treat
the patient following diagnosis.
- Pneumonia that has become chronic.
- Progressive multifocal
leukoencephalopathy: This neurological condition often affects
patients with CD4 cell counts below 200. While there is no current
treatment for this disease, some response has been shown with
- Toxoplasmosis: This parasitic
infection commonly strikes HIV/AIDS patients with CD4 cell counts that
have fallen below 200. Prophylaxis treatments are used as a preventive measure
for patients posting low CD4 cell counts.
- Tuberculosis. Most common in low-income
areas of the globe, tuberculosis can be successfully treated in most cases
if caught early.
- Wasting syndrome (HIV-related): Defined
as unwanted body loss and a total weight loss of more than 10 percent of
the patient’s normal body weight. Treatment involves dietary management
and continued antiretroviral therapy.
patient presents with one or more OIs, the disease will likely be categorized
as AIDS regardless of the patient’s current CD4 cell count. While OIs are
currently the leading cause of death for individuals living with HIV/AIDS,
antiretroviral therapies (HAART) and prophylaxis have shown promise in the
prevention of these diseases when taken as directed.
Staying Healthy with HIV/AIDS
life expectancy and quality of life of an HIV/AIDS-infected patient can be
greatly extended through both the introduction of approved drug regimens and
healthy daily living habits. HIV/AIDS patients can proactively avoid many OIs
by following a daily drug regimen that includes both antiretroviral therapies
and prophylaxes. In addition to maintaining drug therapies, HIV/AIDS patients
should engage in safe sex practices, avoid illicit drug use and needle sharing,
and take extra precautions when working in high-exposure areas such as day-care
centers, prisons, health-care facilities, and homeless centers. Some dietary
management practices can also reduce the development of OIs, including avoiding
raw or undercooked products and unpasteurized dairy products, washing hands
frequently when preparing foods, and drinking filtered water.