Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the white blood cells called helper T cells (CD4). These cells are part of the immune system. They fight off infections and disease. As a result, an HIV infection can leave you vulnerable to severe illnesses.
AIDS is a late stage of HIV infection. It reflects severe damage to the immune system. One or more opportunistic infections will also likely exist. Opportunistic infections are a type of infection that only occur in people with compromised immune systems.
HIV is spread through contact with HIV-infected blood or other body fluids. This includes semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk. The infection may be the result of HIV-1 or HIV-2 virus.
AIDS is caused by the destruction of T cells. The destruction is caused by the HIV virus.
HIV is most commonly spread through:
Rarely, HIV can be spread through:
Factors that increase your chance of getting HIV include:
HIV infection increases the chances of getting AIDS.
HIV may not cause symptoms for a number of years.
Early symptoms may appear a month or two after becoming infected. They may last a couple of weeks and be similar to the flu or mononucleosis. These include:
After these initial symptoms pass, there may be no symptoms for months to years. The following symptoms may occur over the years:
If left untreated, HIV infection progresses to AIDS. This may happen when the number of T helper cells fall below certain levels and opportunistic infections arise. People with AIDS are susceptible to many health complications. These may include:
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. To confirm a diagnosis of HIV infection, your doctor will run tests. These may include:
Medications can prevent, delay, or control the development of AIDS in many people infected with HIV.
Antiviral drugs are often given in combination. Categories of these drugs include:
In general, to reduce your chances of getting HIV infection, take these steps:
If you are a healthcare worker or work in a correctional facility, take these steps:
If you live in a household with an HIV-infected person, take these steps:
If you are infected with HIV, take these steps to prevent spreading HIV to others:
American Foundation for AIDS Research
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
AIDS Committee of Toronto
Canadian AIDS Society
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Last reviewed September 2013 by Igor Puzanov, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.