HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, is a sexually transmitted disease that assails the immune system. The virus attacks your CD4 cells (or T4 cells), which are necessary to fight off illnesses. Eventually, the virus overwhelms the CD4 cells and your body becomes unable to fight off diseases and infections. Once your body's CD4 cell count falls below 200 per cubic millimeter of blood, and/or an opportunistic infection takes hold of your weakened immune system, you will be diagnosed with AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). Symptoms of HIV vary according to what stage of the infection you are in and only HIV testing can tell you if you have the disease.
Early Symptoms of HIV
The earliest symptoms of HIV infection occur while your body begins to form antibodies to the virus (known as seroconversion) between six weeks and three months after infection with the HIV virus. Those who do show early HIV symptoms will develop flu-like symptoms. This can include: fever, rash, muscles aches and swollen lymph nodes and glands. However, for most people, the first symptoms of HIV will not be apparent.
Although the infection is slowly taking hold of your body, the majority of those infected with HIV will be asymptomatic. Only by being tested for HIV can you know for sure if you have been infected. Yet, despite the absence of HIV symptoms, you are still highly contagious during this time making it very much a possibility to infect others. If you a pregnant or nursing, you can also infect your baby.
As the infection progresses, people with HIV grow increasingly susceptible to illnesses and infection that don't normally affect the healthy population. Even though many of these illnesses can easily be treated, those with HIV often have such weakened immune systems that typical cures fail.
Without treatment, people infected with HIV can expect to develop AIDS eight to ten years after HIV infection. Taking HIV medications, however, can slow down this progression. With treatment, it can take ten to 15 years or more before you develop AIDS. In the later stages of HIV, before it progresses to full blown AIDS, signs of HIV infection can involve more severe symptoms. These include:
- chronic yeast infections or thrush (yeast infection of the mouth)
- Fever and/or night sweats
- Easy bruising
- Bouts of extreme exhaustion
- Unexplained body rashes
- Appearance of purplish lesions on the skin or inside mouth
- Sudden unexplained weight loss
- Chronic diarrhea lasting for a month or more
Symptoms of AIDS
To be diagnosed with AIDS, your T4 cell count must drop to below 200 per cubic millimeter (in healthy adults, a T4 cell count of 1,000 or more per millimeter is normal) or be infected with an opportunistic infection. Opportunistic infections are so named because they take advantage of your weakened immune system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a list of those illnesses that are deemed to be opportunistic infections and lead to an AIDS diagnosis. This list includes, but is not limited to:
- Kaposi's Sarcoma
- Pulmonary tuberculosis
- Candidiasis of the esophagus, trachea, bronchi or lungs
- Toxoplasmosis of the brain
- Severe bacterial infections
- Invasive cervical cancer
- Recurrent pneumonia
Additionally, vision loss, nerve damage and brain impairment can also occur. Signs of brain deterioration include troubles thinking, loss of co-ordination and balance and behavioral changes.
While there are treatments to help prolong the life of those infected with the AIDS virus, there is currently no AIDS cure. The best way to protect yourself is by taking preventative measures.