Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). By damaging your immune system, HIV interferes with your body's ability to fight the organisms that cause disease.
HIV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It can also be spread by contact with infected blood or from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding. Without medication, it may take years before HIV weakens your immune system to the point that you have AIDS.
There's no cure for HIV/AIDS, but there are medications that can dramatically slow the progression of the disease. These drugs have reduced AIDS deaths in many developed nations.
The symptoms of HIV and AIDS vary, depending on the phase of infection.
Most people infected by HIV develop a flu-like illness within a month or two after the virus enters the body. This illness, known as primary or acute HIV infection, may last for a few weeks. Possible signs and symptoms include:
These symptoms can be so mild that you might not even notice them. However, the amount of virus in your bloodstream (viral load) is quite high at this time. As a result, the infection spreads more easily during primary infection than during the next stage.
In some people, persistent swelling of lymph nodes occurs during this stage. Otherwise, there are no specific signs and symptoms. HIV remains in the body and in infected white blood cells.
This stage of HIV infection generally lasts around 10 years if you're not receiving antiretroviral therapy. But sometimes, even with this treatment, it lasts for decades. Some people develop more severe disease much sooner.
As the virus continues to multiply and destroy your immune cells â the cells in your body that help fight off germs â you may develop mild infections or chronic signs and symptoms such as:
Thanks to better antiviral treatments, most people with HIV in the U.S. today don't develop AIDS. Untreated, HIV typically turns into AIDS in about 10 years.
When AIDS occurs, your immune system has been severely damaged. You'll be more likely to develop opportunistic infections or opportunistic cancers â diseases that wouldn't usually trouble a person with a healthy immune system.
The signs and symptoms of some of these infections may include:
If you think you may have been infected with HIV or are at risk of contracting the virus, see a health care provider as soon as possible.
HIV is caused by a virus. It can spread through sexual contact or blood, or from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding.
HIV destroys CD4 T cells â white blood cells that play a large role in helping your body fight disease. The fewer CD4 T cells you have, the weaker your immune system becomes.
You can have an HIV infection for years before it turns into AIDS. AIDS is diagnosed when the CD4 T cell count falls below 200 or you have an AIDS-defining complication.
To become infected with HIV, infected blood, semen or vaginal secretions must enter your body. This can happen in several ways:
You can't become infected with HIV through ordinary contact. That means you can't catch HIV or AIDS by hugging, kissing, dancing or shaking hands with someone who has the infection.
HIV isn't spread through the air, water or insect bites.
HIV is most commonly diagnosed by testing your blood or saliva for antibodies to the virus. Unfortunately, it takes time for your body to develop these antibodies â usually up to 12 weeks.
A quicker test checks for HIV antigen, a protein produced by the virus immediately after infection. It can confirm a diagnosis soon after infection and allow the person to take swifter steps to prevent the spread of the virus to others.
At least two Food and Drug Administration-approved home test kits for HIV are available. Depending on which you choose, you'll need a drop of dried blood or sample of saliva. If the test is positive, you'll need to see your doctor to confirm the diagnosis and discuss your treatment options. If the test is negative, it needs to be repeated in a few months to confirm the results.
If you receive a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS, several tests can help your doctor determine the stage of your disease and the best treatment. These tests include:
Your doctor might also order lab tests to check for other infections or complications, including:
HIV infection weakens your immune system, making you much more likely to develop numerous infections and certain types of cancers.
There's no vaccine to prevent HIV infection and no cure for AIDS. But you can protect yourself and others from infection.
To help prevent the spread of HIV:
People who are infected with HIV sometimes try dietary supplements that claim to boost the immune system or counteract side effects of anti-HIV drugs. However, there is no scientific evidence that any nutritional supplement improves immunity, and many may interfere with other medications you are taking.
Be sure to discuss the use of any dietary supplement with your doctor before trying it to ensure that it won't adversely interact with any of your medications.
Along with receiving medical treatment, it's essential to take an active role in your own care. The following suggestions may help you stay healthy longer:
Receiving a diagnosis of any life-threatening illness is devastating. The emotional, social and financial consequences of HIV/AIDS can make coping with this illness especially difficult â not only for you but also for those closest to you.
But today, there are many services and resources available to people with HIV. Most HIV/AIDS clinics have social workers, counselors or nurses who can help you directly or put you in touch with people who can.
Services they may provide:
It's important to have a support system. Many people with HIV/AIDS find that talking to someone who understands their disease provides comfort.
When HIV/AIDS first appeared in the United States, it mainly affected men who had sex with men. However, now it's clear that HIV also spreads through heterosexual sex.
Anyone of any age, race, sex or sexual orientation can be infected. However, you're at greatest risk of HIV/AIDS if you: