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Understanding CD4 Cells and CD4 Cell Tests

August 5, 2015

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Understanding CD4 Cells and CD4 Cell Tests

The Basics

Your immune system protects your body by fighting germs and infections. White blood cells are an important part of your immune system. HIV infects and destroys a type of white blood cell called a CD4 cell (sometimes called a T-cell).

As the immune system loses CD4 cells, it becomes weaker and is less able to fight off germs. When it loses a large number of CD4 cells, people living with HIV (HIV+) are at risk of getting AIDS-related opportunistic infections (OIs), which are infections that can cause serious illness or death.

The number of CD4 cells you have gives a picture of the health of your immune system. A normal CD4 cell count is about 500 to 1,500 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (a cubic millimeter is a very small amount, about one drop). The number of CD4 cells a person has -- their "CD4 count" -- usually decreases as HIV disease gets worse. Your CD4 cell count can help your health care provider tell if your HIV disease is getting worse, and if the treatment you are taking is working well.

Click above to view or download this fact sheet as a PDF slide presentation

CD4 Count and HIV

Without HIV treatment, HIV infects and destroys more and more CD4 cells. As the CD4 count goes down, people living with HIV becomes more likely to develop OIs and cancers.

  • CD4 count > 500: People with CD4 counts above 500 cells usually have a fairly normal immune system and are at low risk for OIs
  • CD4 count < 200: People with CD4 counts below 200 cells are diagnosed as having AIDS and are at risk for developing serious OIs such as Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP), Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC), and cytomegalovirus (CMV). If your CD4 count drops below 200, your health care provider will likely recommend that you take medications to prevent these infections.

CD4 Count and HIV Treatment

There are several different organizations and institutions that make recommendations about when to start HIV treatment. The British HIV Association, US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and WHO treatment guidelines now recommend treatment for all people living with HIV, no matter what their CD4 count.

The DHHS treatment guidelines state:

  • HIV treatment is recommended for anyone who is living with HIV, no matter what their CD4 count
  • HIV treatment is also strongly recommended if you are in one or more of the following situations, no matter what your CD4 count:

    • You have or had symptoms of AIDS (such as opportunistic infections)
    • You are a pregnant woman
    • You have HIV-related kidney disease
    • You need treatment for hepatitis B (HBV) and/or hepatitis C
  • The guidelines also point to several conditions that increase the need for treatment, such as rapidly declining CD4 count (more than 100 cells per year) or higher viral load (more than 100,000 copies)
  • HIV drugs should be offered to people who are at risk of spreading HIV to their sexual partners

Many people see their CD4 counts increase when they start effective HIV treatment. If the drugs succeed in slowing or stopping HIV, fewer new CD4 cells will be infected and your CD4 count may go up. However, your CD4 count can also go down again if you stop taking your HIV drugs correctly, or if your HIV becomes resistant to the drugs. Along with your viral load, your CD4 count is a very valuable tool for monitoring your HIV infection and how well your HIV drugs are working.

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.


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