HIV/AIDS: Symptoms, Causes, Risk factors, Prevention, and Treatment

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic, deadly condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that interferes with your body’s ability to fight the organisms that cause disease by destroying your immune system.

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HIV can be spread by contact with infected blood or from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding. It may take years before HIV weakens your immune system, thereby exposing you to AIDS.

HIV/AIDS has no cure, but there are medicines that can slow the progression of the disease.

Symptoms of HIV/AIDS

The symptoms of HIV and AIDS depends on the phase of infection.

Primary infection stage (Acute HIV)

After the virus gains access to the body, most people infected by HIV develop a flu-like illness within a month or two. This stage is known as the primary or acute HIV infection. It may last for a few weeks. Possible signs and symptoms include:

  • Rash
  • Sore throat and painful sores in mouth
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches and joint pain
  • Swollen lymph glands, mainly on the neck

You may not notice these symptoms because they will be so slight or mild. 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.

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Clinical latent infection stage (Chronic HIV)

In this stage, persistent swelling of lymph nodes is observed by most people. Otherwise, there are no specific signs and symptoms. HIV remains in the body and in infected white blood cells.

If you are not on antiretroviral therapy, this stage of HIV infection generally lasts around 10 years. However, even with this treatment, it lasts for decades. Some people develop more severe disease much sooner.

Symptomatic HIV infection stage

In this stage, the virus continues to multiply and destroy your immune cells and you may develop mild infections or chronic symptoms such as:

  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Shingles
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes — often one of the first signs of HIV infection
  • Oral yeast infection (thrush)

Progression to AIDS

Most people with HIV today don’t develop AIDS, as a result of the antiviral treatments. If left untreated, HIV turns into AIDS in about 10 years.

When AIDS occurs, your immune system has been severely damaged thereby leaving your body vulnerable to infections or cancers.

The signs and symptoms of some of these infections may include:

  • Fever that is recurrent
  • Soaking night sweats
  • Skin rashes or bumps
  • Weight loss
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Persistent white spots or unusual lesions on your tongue or in your mouth
  • Persistent, unexplained fatigue

Causes of HIV/AIDS

HIV is caused by a virus and it can spread through sexual contact or blood, or from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding.

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HIV becomes AIDS by destroying CD4 T cells (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.

To diagnose AIDS, the CD4 T cell count should fall below 200.

How is HIV spread?

To become infected with HIV, infected blood, semen or vaginal secretions must enter your body. Ways in which this can happen include:

  • Unprotected sex:Engaging in unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex with an infected partner can expose you to HIV/AIDS. The virus can enter your body through mouth sores or small tears that sometimes develop in the rectum or vagina during sex.
  • Sharing sharp objects.Sharing contaminated intravenous drug paraphernalia such as needles and syringes exposes you to high risk of HIV and other infectious diseases, such as hepatitis.
  • Blood transfusions.The virus may be transmitted through blood transfusions, especially when the blood isn’t properly screened before being transfused.
  • During pregnancy or delivery or through breast-feeding.Infected mothers can pass on the virus on to their babies. HIV-positive mothers who get treatment for the infection during pregnancy can considerably lower the risk to their babies.

Risk factors

HIV/AIDS doesn’t discriminate between race, age, sex, or sexual orientation. Anyone can get the infection. However, you’re at greatest risk of HIV/AIDS if you:

  • Using latex or polyurethane condom every time you have sex can reduce your risks of getting the disease. Anal sex is more risky than is vaginal sex. Your risk of HIV increases if you have multiple sexual partners.
  • Have an STI.Many STIs produce open sores on your genitals. These sores act as doorways for HIV to enter your body.
  • Use intravenous drugs.People who use intravenous drugs often share needles and syringes. This exposes them to droplets of other people’s blood.
  • Are an uncircumcised man.Studies suggest that lack of circumcision increases the risk of heterosexual transmission of HIV.


HIV infection weakens your immune system, making you much more likely to develop numerous infections and certain types of cancers.

Infections common to HIV/AIDS

  • Tuberculosis (TB): Tuberculosis is the most common opportunistic infection linked with HIV. It’s a leading cause of death among people with AIDS.
  • Candidiasis:Candidiasis is a common infection linked to HIV that causes inflammation and a thick, white coating on the mucous membranes of your mouth, tongue, esophagus or vagina.
  • Cytomegalovirus:This common herpes virus is transmitted in body fluids such as blood, saliva, urine, semen and breast milk. A healthy immune system disables the virus, and it remains dormant in your body. If your immune system weakens, the virus resurfaces, causing damage to your lungs, digestive tract, eyes or other organs.
  • Cryptococcal meningitis:Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes and fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord (meninges). Cryptococcal meningitis is a common central nervous system infection associated with HIV. It is caused by a fungus found in soil.
  • Toxoplasmosis:This infection is caused by Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite spread mainly by cats. Infected cats pass the parasites in their stools, which may then spread to other animals and humans. It can affect the brain, causing seizures.
  • Cryptosporidiosis:This infection is caused by an intestinal parasite that is found in animals. It can be gotten through the consumption of contaminated food or water. The parasite grows in your intestines and bile ducts, leading to serious, chronic diarrhea in people with AIDS.

Cancers common to HIV/AIDS

  • Kaposi’s sarcoma.This cancer develops as a tumor of the blood vessel walls. It is very common in people who are positive to HIV. It usually appears as pink, red or purple lesions on the skin and mouth. The cuts may appear as dark brown or black in people with darker skin. Kaposi’s sarcoma can also affect the internal organs, including the digestive tract and lungs.
  • This cancer begins in the white blood cells. The most common early sign is painless swelling of the lymph nodes in your neck, armpit or groin.

Preventing HIV/AIDS

AIDS has no cure, and there’s no vaccine to prevent HIV infection. However, you can protect yourself and others from infection.

To help prevent the spread of HIV:

  • Use a new condom every time you have sex.
  • Consider the drug Truvada.The drug emtricitabine-tenofovir (Truvada) can reduce the risk of sexually transmitted HIV infection in people at very high risk. It doesn’t prevent other STIs, so you’ll still need to practice safe sex.
  • Tell your sexual partner if you have HIV.It’s vital to inform all your current and past sexual partners that you’re HIV-positive so they can be tested.
  • Use a clean needle.If you use a needle to inject drugs, ensure that it’s sterile and don’t share it.
  • Pregnant women who have HIV should get medical care to significantly reduce the risk of their baby getting the disease.


To diagnose HIV, your blood or saliva is tested for antibodies to the virus. Unfortunately, it takes time for your body to develop these antibodies which is usually up to 12 weeks.

A protein produced by the virus immediately after infection is a quicker test checks for HIV antigen. It can confirm a diagnosis soon after infection and allow the person to take faster steps to prevent the spread of the virus to others.

Tests to stage disease and treatment

Several tests can help your doctor determine the stage of your disease and the best treatment. These tests include:

  • CD4 T cell count.CD4 T cells are white blood cells that are precisely targeted and destroyed by HIV. Even with no symptoms, HIV infection progresses to AIDS when your CD4 T cell count dips below 200.
  • Viral load (HIV RNA).This test measures the amount of virus in your blood. A higher viral load has been linked to a worse outcome.
  • Drug resistance.Some strains of HIV are resistant to medications. This test helps your doctor determine if your specific form of the virus has resistance and guides treatment decisions.

Tests for complications

Your doctor might also order lab tests to check for other infections or complications, such as hepatitis, tuberculosis, liver or kidney damage, urinary tract infection, toxoplasmosis, and sexually transmitted infections.


There’s no cure for HIV/AIDS, however, there are many different drugs are available to control the virus. Such treatment is called antiretroviral therapy, or ART.

The classes of anti-HIV drugs include:

  • Nucleoside or nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) are faulty versions of the building blocks that HIV needs to make copies of itself. Examples include Abacavir (Ziagen), and the combination drugs emtricitabine/tenofovir (Truvada), Descovy (tenofovir alafenamide/emtricitabine), and lamivudine-zidovudine (Combivir).
  • Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs): This turn off a protein needed by HIV to make copies of itself. Examples include efavirenz (Sustiva), etravirine (Intelence) and nevirapine (Viramune).
  • Entry or fusion inhibitors: This drug block HIV’s entry into CD4 T cells. Examples include enfuvirtide (Fuzeon) and maraviroc (Selzentry).
  • Protease inhibitors (PIs): This inactivate HIV protease, another protein that HIV needs to make copies of itself. Examples include atazanavir (Reyataz), darunavir (Prezista), fosamprenavir (Lexiva) and indinavir (Crixivan).
  • Integrase inhibitors: This works by disabling a protein called integrase, which HIV uses to insert its genetic material into CD4 T cells. Examples include raltegravir (Isentress) and dolutegravir (Tivicay).

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Disclaimer: The content provided on is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical doctor or healthcare professional.



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