HIV and AIDS: Overview, Causes and Symptoms

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HIV and AIDS: Overview, Causes and Symptoms


HIV is a virus that targets and alters the immune system, increasing the risk and impact of other infections and diseases. Without treatment, the infection might progress to an advanced disease stage called AIDS.


What is HIV?

HIV is a virus that damages the immune system. The immune system helps the body fight off infections. Untreated HIV infects and kills CD4 cells, which are a type of immune cell called T cells. Over time, as HIV kills more CD4 cells, the body is more likely to get various types of infections and cancers.

HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids that include:

  • blood
  • semen
  • vaginal and rectal fluids
  • breast milk

The virus doesn’t spread in air or water, or through casual contact.

HIV is a lifelong condition and currently there is no cure, although many scientists are working to find one. However, with medical care, including treatment called antiretroviral therapy, it’s possible to manage HIV and live with the virus for many years.

Without treatment, a person with HIV is likely to develop a serious condition called AIDS. At that point, the immune system is too weak to fight off other diseases and infections. Untreated, life expectancy with AIDS is about three years. With antiretroviral therapy, HIV can be well-controlled and life expectancy can be nearly the same as someone who has not contracted HIV.

What is AIDS?

AIDS is a disease that can develop in people with HIV. It’s the most advanced stage of HIV. But just because a person has HIV doesn’t mean they’ll develop AIDS.

HIV kills CD4 cells. Healthy adults generally have a CD4 count of 500 to 1500 per cubic millimeter. A person with HIV whose CD4 count falls below 200 per cubic millimeter will be diagnosed with AIDS.

A person can also be diagnosed with AIDS if they have HIV and develop an opportunistic infection or cancer that’s rare in people who don’t have HIV. An opportunistic infection, such as pneumonia, is one that takes advantage of a unique situation, such as HIV.

Untreated, HIV can progress to AIDS within a decade. There’s no cure for AIDS, and without treatment, life expectancy after diagnosis is about three years. This may be shorter if the person develops a severe opportunistic illness. However, treatment with antiretroviral drugs can prevent AIDS from developing.

If AIDS does develop, it means that the immune system is severely compromised. It’s weakened to the point where it can no longer fight off most diseases and infections. That makes the person vulnerable to a wide range of illnesses, including:

  • pneumonia.
  • tuberculosis.
  • oral thrush, a fungal infection in the (mouth or throat.
  • cytomegalovirus (CMV), a type of herpes virus.
  • cryptococcal meningitis, a fungal infection in the brain.
  • toxoplasmosis, a brain infection caused by a parasite.
  • cryptosporidiosis, an infection caused by an intestinal parasite.
  • cancer, including Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) and lymphoma.

The shortened life expectancy linked with untreated AIDS isn’t a direct result of the syndrome itself. Rather, it’s a result of the diseases and complications that arise from having an immune system weakened by AIDS.


Progression to AIDS

The risk of HIV progressing to AIDS varies widely between individuals and depends on many factors, including:

  • the age of the individual.
  • the body’s ability to defend against HIV.
  • access to high-quality, sanitary healthcare.
  • the presence of other infections.
  • the individual’s genetic inheritance resistance to certain strains of HIV.
  • drug-resistant strains of HIV.



For the most part, infections by other bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites cause the more severe symptoms of HIV.

These conditions tend to progress further in people who live with HIV than in individuals with healthy immune systems. A correctly functioning immune system would protect the body against the more advanced effects of infections, and HIV disrupts this process.

Early symptoms of HIV infection

Some people with HIV do not show symptoms until months or even years after contracting the virus.

However, around 80 percent of people may develop a set of flu-like symptoms known as acute retroviral syndrome around 2–6 weeks after the virus enters the body.

The early symptoms of HIV infection may include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • joint pain
  • muscle aches
  • sore throat
  • particularly at night
  • enlarged glands
  • a red rash
  • tiredness
  • weakness
  • unintentional weight loss
  • thrush

These symptoms might also result from the immune system fighting off many types of viruses.

However, people who experience several of these symptoms and know of any reason they might have been at risk of contracting HIV over the last 6 weeks should take a test.

Asymptomatic HIV

In many cases, after the symptoms of acute retroviral syndrome, symptoms might not occur for many years.

During this time, the virus continues to develop and cause immune system and organ damage. Without medication that prevents the replication of the virus, this slow process can continue for an average of around 10 years.

A person living with HIV often experiences no symptoms, feels well, and appears healthy.

Complying rigidly to a course of ART can disrupt this phase and suppress the virus completely. Taking effective antiretroviral medications for life can halt on-going damage to the immune system.


There is no cure for HIV, but it can be controlled. People with HIV often have a near-normal lifespan with early treatment with antiretroviral therapy. Along those same lines, there’s technically no cure for AIDS. However, treatment can increase a person’s CD4 count to the point where they’re considered to no longer have AIDS. (This point is a count of 200 or higher.) Also, treatment can typically help manage opportunistic infections.

HIV and AIDS are related, but they’re not the same thing.

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