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The Stages of HIV Disease

August 22, 2008

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Early- and Medium-Stage HIV Symptomatic Disease

When the immune system is compromised by HIV infection, many people begin to experience some mild HIV disease symptoms, such as skin rashes, fatigue, night sweats, slight weight loss, mouth ulcers, and fungal skin and nail infections. Most, though not all, will experience mild symptoms such as these before developing more serious illnesses. Although one's prognosis varies greatly depending on a number of factors, it is generally believed that it takes five to seven years for the first mild symptoms to appear. These symptoms mark the early and medium stages of HIV symptomatic disease.

As the disease progresses, some individuals may become quite ill even if they have not yet been diagnosed with AIDS, the late stage of HIV disease. Typical problems include chronic oral or vaginal thrush (a fungal rash or spots), recurrent herpes blisters on the mouth (cold sores) or genitals, ongoing fevers, persistent diarrhea, and significant weight loss.

These symptoms are not necessarily specific to HIV or the development of AIDS. However, they should be of concern to people who have tested positive for HIV. Usually, symptoms occur when the virus has already caused considerable damage to the immune system. For that reason, people with HIV should not wait until symptoms appear to get medical treatment. Also, people with high risk for HIV infection should not wait to for symptoms to appear before getting tested.

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Late-Stage HIV Disease (AIDS)

When immune system damage is more severe, HIV positive individuals may experience opportunistic infections (called "opportunistic" because they are caused by organisms which do not ordinarily induce illness in people with normal immune systems, but take the opportunity to flourish in people with compromised immune systems). Some of the most common opportunistic infections include Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) disease, cytomegalovirus (CMV), toxoplasmosis, and candidiasis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an AIDS diagnosis can be given to an HIV positive person who has a CD4 count of less 200/mm3 or a history of an "AIDS-defining illness" (such as one of the opportunistic infections mentioned above). For more information on what defines AIDS, including a complete list of AIDS-defining illnesses, see "Mortality Trends" from the Winter 2005 BETA.

It is important to note that this definition of AIDS may apply to HIV positive individuals who have never experienced symptoms of HIV disease.

Receiving an AIDS diagnosis does not necessarily mean that the diagnosed person will die soon; some people have lived for many years after their diagnosis. This is even more the case today with the availability of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), which has helped extend the lives of thousands of people living with HIV and AIDS. In addition, many opportunistic infections can be prevented or treated successfully. This has substantially increased the longevity and quality of life of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Does everyone who has HIV eventually develop AIDS? We don't know for certain. Studies show that the majority of untreated people do eventually become ill from HIV. However, with regular medical care and other positive lifestyle factors, such as emotional support, many long-term survivors have been living with HIV/AIDS for upwards of two decades. As existing treatments are used earlier in the course of HIV disease and new treatments are developed, it has become possible to further postpone, and perhaps even prevent, illness.

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This article was provided by San Francisco AIDS Foundation. It is a part of the publication AIDS 101. Visit San Francisco AIDS Foundation's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
 
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