Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes AIDS. When a person becomes infected with HIV, the virus attacks and weakens the immune system. As the immune system weakens, the person is at risk of getting life-threatening infections and cancers. When that happens, the illness is called AIDS. Once a person has the virus, it stays inside the body for life.
The virus is spread (transmitted) person-to-person in any of the following ways:
- Through sexual contact
- Through blood -- by blood transfusions (now extremely rare in the United States) or more often by needle sharing
- From mother to child -- a pregnant woman can spread the virus to her fetus through their shared blood circulation, or a nursing mother can pass it to her baby through her breast milk
The virus is NOT spread by:
- Casual contact, such as hugging
- Participating in sports
- Touching items that were touched by a person infected with the virus
HIV and blood or organ donation:
- HIV is not spread to a person who donates blood or organs. People who donate organs are never in direct contact with the people who receive them. Likewise, a person who donates blood is never in contact with the person receiving it. In all of these procedures, sterile needles and instruments are used.
- But HIV can be spread to a person receiving blood or organs from an infected donor. To reduce this risk, blood banks and organ donor programs check (screen) donors, blood, and tissues thoroughly.
People at high risk of getting HIV include:
- Drug users who inject and then share needles
- Infants born to mothers with HIV who did not receive HIV treatment during pregnancy
- People who have unprotected sex, especially with people who have other high-risk behaviors, are HIV-positive, or have AIDS
- People who received blood transfusions or clotting products between 1977 and 1985, before screening for the virus became standard practice
- Sexual partners of those who engage in high-risk activities (such as injection drug use or anal sex)
After HIV infects the body, the virus can be found in many different fluids and tissues in the body.
- Only blood, semen, fluids from the vagina, and breast milk have been shown to transmit infection to others.
- The virus may also be found in saliva, tears, and spinal fluid.
Symptoms related to acute HIV infection (when a person is first infected) can be similar to the flu or other viral illnesses. They include:
- Fever and muscle pains
- Sore throat
- Night sweats
- Mouth sores, including yeast infection (thrush)
- Swollen lymph glands
Many people have no symptoms when they are first infected with HIV.
Acute HIV infection progresses over a few weeks to months to become an asymptomatic HIV infection (no symptoms). This stage can last 10 years or longer. During this period, the person might have no reason to suspect they have HIV, but they can spread the virus to others.
If they are not treated, almost all people infected with HIV will develop AIDS. Some people develop AIDS within a few years of infection. Others remain completely healthy after 10 or even 20 years.
People with AIDS have had their immune system damaged by HIV. They are at very high risk of getting infections that are uncommon in people with a healthy immune system. These infections are called opportunistic infections. These can be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or protozoa, and can affect any part of the body. People with AIDS are also at higher risk for certain cancers, especially lymphomas and a skin cancer called Kaposi sarcoma.
Symptoms depend on the particular infection and which part of the body is infected. Lung infections are common in AIDS and usually cause cough, fever, and shortness of breath. Intestinal infections are also common and can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, vomiting, or swallowing problems. Weight loss, fever, sweats, rashes, and swollen lymph glands are common in people with HIV infection and AIDS.
Exams and Tests
These are tests that are done to check if you've been infected with the virus. In general, testing is a 2-step process:
- Screening test. There are several kinds of tests. Some are blood tests, others are mouth fluid tests. They check for antibodies to the HIV virus, HIV antigen, or both. Some screening tests can give results in 30 minutes or less.
- Follow-up test. This is also called a confirmatory test. It is often done when the screening test is positive.
Home tests are available to test for HIV. If you plan to use one, check to make sure it is approved by the FDA. Follow instructions on the packaging to ensure the results are as accurate as possible.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone ages 15 to 65 have a screening test for HIV. People with risky behaviors should be tested regularly. Pregnant women should also have a screening test.
TESTS AFTER BEING DIAGNOSED WITH HIV
People with AIDS usually have regular blood tests to check their CD4 cell count:
- CD4 cells are the blood cells that HIV attacks. They are also called T4 cells or "helper T cells."
- As HIV damages the immune system, the CD4 count drops. A normal CD4 count is from 500 to 1,500 cells/mm3 of blood.
- People usually develop symptoms when their CD4 count drops below 350. More serious complications occur when the CD4 count drops to 200. When the count is below 200, the person is said to have AIDS.
Other tests include:
- HIV RNA level, or viral load, to check how much HIV is in the blood
- A resistance test to see if the virus has any resistance to the medicines used to treat HIV
- Complete blood count, blood chemistry, and urine test
- Tests for other sexually transmitted infections
- TB test
- Pap smear to check for cervical cancer
- Anal Pap smear to check for cancer of the anus
HIV/AIDS is treated with medicines that stop the virus from multiplying. This treatment is called antiretroviral therapy (ART).
In the past, people with HIV infection would start antiretroviral treatment after their CD4 count dropped or they developed HIV complications. Today, HIV treatment is recommended for all people with HIV infection, even if their CD4 count is still normal.
Regular blood tests are needed to make sure the virus level in the blood (viral load) is kept low, or suppressed. The goal of treatment is to lower the HIV virus in the blood to a level that is so low that the test can't detect it. This is called an undetectable viral load.
If the CD4 count already dropped before treatment was started, it will usually slowly go up. HIV complications often disappear as the immune system recovers.
Joining a support group where members share common experiences and problems can often help lower the emotional stress of having a long-term illness.
With treatment, most people with HIV/AIDS can live a healthy and normal life.
Current treatments do not cure the infection. The medicines only work as long as they are taken every day. If the medicines are stopped, the viral load will go up and the CD4 count will drop. If the medicines are not taken regularly, the virus can become resistant to one or more of the drugs, and the treatment will stop working.
People who are on treatment need to see their health care providers regularly. This is to make sure the medicines are working and to check for side effects of the drugs.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call for an appointment with your provider if you have any risk factors for HIV infection. Also call if you develop symptoms of AIDS. By law, the results of HIV testing must be kept confidential (private). Your provider will review your test results with you.
- Get tested. People who don't know they have HIV infection and who look and feel healthy are the most likely to transmit it to others.
- DO NOT use illegal drugs and do not share needles or syringes. Many communities have needle exchange programs, where you can get rid of used syringes and get new, sterile ones. Staff at these programs can also refer you for addiction treatment.
- Avoid contact with another person's blood. If possible, wear protective clothing, a mask, and goggles when caring for people who are injured.
- If you test positive for HIV, you can pass the virus to others. You should not donate blood, plasma, body organs, or sperm.
- HIV-positive women who might become pregnant should talk to their provider about the risk to their unborn child. They should also discuss methods to prevent their baby from becoming infected, such as taking antiretroviral medicines during pregnancy.
- Breastfeeding should be avoided to prevent passing HIV to infants through breast milk.
Safer sex practices, such as using latex condoms, are effective in preventing the spread of HIV. But there is still a risk of getting the infection, even with the use of condoms (for example, condoms can tear). Abstinence is the only sure way to prevent sexual transmission of HIV.
In people who aren't infected with the virus, but are at high risk of getting it, taking a drug called Truvada can help prevent the infection. This treatment is known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. Talk to your provider if you think PrEP might be right for you.
HIV-positive people who are taking antiretroviral medicines are less likely to transmit the virus.
The US blood supply is among the safest in the world. Nearly all people infected with HIV through blood transfusions received those transfusions before 1985, the year HIV testing began for all donated blood.
If you believe you have been exposed to HIV, seek medical attention right away. DO NOT delay. Starting antiviral medicines right after the exposure (up to 3 days after) can reduce the chance that you will be infected. This is called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). It has been used to prevent transmission in health care workers injured by needlesticks.
HIV infection; Infection - HIV; Human immunodeficiency virus; Acquired immune deficiency syndrome
- STDs and ecological niches
- Primary HIV infection
- Canker sore (aphthous ulcer)
- Mycobacterium marinum infection on the hand
- Dermatitis, seborrheic on the face
- Kaposi sarcoma - close-up
- Histoplasmosis, disseminated in HIV patient
- Molluscum on the chest
- Kaposi sarcoma on the back
- Kaposi's sarcoma on the thigh
- Molluscum contagiosum on the face
- Tuberculosis in the lung
- Kaposi sarcoma - lesion on the foot
- Kaposi sarcoma - perianal
- Herpes zoster (shingles) disseminated
- Dermatitis seborrheic - close-up
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Verma A, Berger JR. Neurological manifestations of human immunodeficiency virus infection in adults. In: Daroff RB, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SL, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 77.
Review Date 9/27/2017
Updated by: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.