(This information is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a doctor or a recommendation for any particular treatment plan. Like any printed material, it may become out of date over time. It is important that you rely on the advice of a doctor for your specific condition.)


AIDS is a life threatening disease caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). HIV makes it difficult for the body to fight off infections. There is no cure for AIDS. However, there are new treatments that can slow down its progression. There are about 33 million people in the world who have HIV or AIDS. More than 2 million people die each year from AIDS-related illnesses.

HIV enters the body through blood, semen, vaginal fluid or breast milk from an infected person. HIV is not transmitted through saliva, sweat, spit, tears, air or insects. The most common ways of getting HIV are through unprotected sex and sharing needles or syringes.

The body depends on the immune system to fight infections, and also keeps some types of cancer from taking over the body. If we think of the immune system as an army fighting infections; white blood cells are the soldiers. They are called lymphocytes. There are special lymphocytes called CD4 helper lymphocytes. They coordinate the immune system’s attack on foreign organisms. CD4 helper lymphocytes and HIV fight each other for years. Each day the body makes billions of CD4 cells and the HIV uses them to make even more of its own copies. In most people, the HIV eventually wins the battle.

A normal count of CD4 helper lymphocytes is 600 to 1500 per cubic milliliter of blood. When the count drops below 200, the body’s immune system cannot work well at all. With a CD4 count below 200, a simple infection could cause a lot of trouble because the body cannot fight it off. Viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites can cause infections.

Most people do not notice if they get HIV. Some people who get the virus may develop a brief flu-like illness 2 to 6 weeks after becoming infected. However, since these symptoms are similar to a cold or flu, they go unnoticed. During the early stages of HIV, a battle rages between CD4 cells and HIV for 8 or 9 years without being clinically noticed. Most people with HIV do not have symptoms in the early stages. Eventually, this stage ends with mild infections or chronic symptoms such as:
• Swollen lymph nodes - often one of the first signs of HIV infection
• Diarrhea
• Weight loss
• Fever
• Cough
• Shortness of breath

During the late HIV stage, more serious symptoms may start to appear such as:
• Persistent, unexplained fatigue
• Soaking night sweats
• Shaking chills or fever higher than 38°C for several weeks
• Swelling of lymph nodes for more than 3 months
• Chronic diarrhea
• Persistent headaches

AIDS stands for Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome. This means a disease caused by a weak immune system:
• The CD4 helper lymphocyte count is 200 or less
• He or she has a serious infection or cancer because the immune system could not fight it off

Right now there is no vaccine to prevent HIV infection and no cure for AIDS. However, treatment is available to slow its progression and improve the quality of life. The treatment for AIDS focuses on suppressing the growth of the virus and improving the patient’s quality of life. This is called Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy, or HAART. This is usually a combination of 3 or more drugs. Drugs used for treatment include antiretroviral drugs and fusion inhibitors. Antiretroviral drugs slow down the growth and reproduction of HIV. Fusion inhibitors stop the virus from reproducing by preventing its membrane from fusing with the membrane of the CD4 lymphocytes.

(Source:  U. S. National Library of Medicine - National Institute of Health)