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HIV/AIDS (cont.)

HIV/AIDS Symptoms and Signs

Many people with HIV do not know they are infected. In the United States, it is likely that 20% of HIV-positive individuals are unaware of their infection. HIV infection progresses in different stages.

  • Many people do not develop symptoms after they first are infected with HIV. Others will have signs and symptoms in the early stage of HIV infection, referred to as primary or acute HIV infection. The most common symptoms are similar to a flu-like illness within several days to weeks after exposure to the virus. Early HIV symptoms include fever, headache, tiredness, rash, sore throat, and enlarged lymph nodes in the neck. A characteristic feature of primary HIV infection is open sores or ulcers in the mouth. These symptoms usually disappear within a few weeks. After that, the person feels normal and has no symptoms. This asymptomatic phase often lasts for years.
  • The progression of disease varies widely among individuals. This stage of HIV infection may last from a few months to more than 10 years.
    • During this period, the virus continues to multiply actively and infects and kills the cells of the immune system.
    • The virus destroys the cells that are the primary infection fighters, a type of white blood cell called CD4 cells.
    • Even though the person has no symptoms, he or she is contagious and can pass HIV to others through the routes listed above.

AIDS is the later stage of HIV infection, when the body begins losing its ability to fight infections. Once the CD4 cell count falls low enough, an infected person is said to have AIDS. Sometimes, the diagnosis of AIDS is made because the person has unusual infections or cancers that show how weak the immune system is.

  • The infections that happen with AIDS are called opportunistic infections because they take advantage of the opportunity to infect a weakened host. A person diagnosed with AIDS may need to be on antibiotic prophylaxis to prevent opportunistic infections from occurring. The infections include (but are not limited to)
    • pneumonia caused by Pneumocystis, which causes wheezing or dry cough;
    • brain infection with toxoplasmosis which can cause trouble thinking or symptoms that mimic a stroke;
    • widespread infection with a bacteria called MAC (Mycobacterium avium complex) which can cause fever and weight loss;
    • yeast infection of the swallowing tube (esophagus), which causes pain with swallowing;
    • widespread diseases with certain fungi like histoplasmosis, which can cause fever, cough, anemia, and other problems.
  • A weakened immune system can also lead to other unusual conditions:
    • Lymphoma (a form of cancer of the lymphoid tissue) in the brain, which can cause fever and trouble thinking
    • A cancer of the soft tissues called Kaposi's sarcoma, which causes brown, reddish, or purple spots that develop on the skin or in the mouth
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/5/2014
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