HIV is a virus that attacks white blood cells called helper T cells (CD4). These cells are part of the immune system. They fight off infections and disease. As a result, an HIV infection can leave you vulnerable to severe illnesses.

AIDS is a late stage of HIV. It reflects severe damage to the immune system. An opportunistic infection will also exist. This is a type of infection that only occurs in people with compromised immune systems.

HIV and White Blood Cells

© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


The HIV virus is spread through contact with HIV-infected blood or other body fluids. This includes semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk.

AIDS is caused by the destruction of T cells. The destruction is caused by the HIV virus.

Immune System

Immune system white blood cell
HIV destroys white blood cells vital to the immune system.
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

HIV is spread through:

  • Sexual contact with an HIV-infected person, especially intercourse or anal sex
  • Transfer of HIV from a mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding
  • A prick from an HIV-contaminated needle
  • A blood transfusion]]> with HIV-infected blood (rare today, due to testing of all donated blood for HIV infection beginning in 1985)

Rarely, HIV can be spread through:

  • Blood from an HIV-infected person getting into an open wound of another person
  • Being bitten by someone infected with HIV
  • Sharing personal hygiene items with an HIV-infected person (razors, toothbrushes, etc)


Risk Factors

Factors that increase your chance of getting HIV include:

  • Having multiple sexual partners
  • Injecting illegal drugs, especially with used or dirty needles
  • Having regular exposure to HIV-contaminated blood or other body fluids (a concern for healthcare workers)
  • Being born to an HIV-infected mother
  • Receiving donor blood products, tissue, organs, or artificial insemination
  • Being an immigrants from geographic locations with high numbers of AIDS patients (east central Africa and Haiti)
  • Having a sexual relationship with a high-risk individual or a partner already infected with HIV

The risk factor for AIDS is having HIV.


HIV may not cause symptoms for a number of years.

Early symptoms may appear a month or two after becoming infected. They may last a couple of weeks. These include:

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat]]>
  • Recurring fever
  • Night sweats
  • Extreme, unexplained fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes in armpits, neck, or groin
  • White spots on the tongue or in the mouth or throat
  • Headache
  • Discomfort from light
  • Rash
  • ]]>Depression]]>
  • Irritable mood
  • Memory loss or other neurological disorder

After these initial symptoms pass, there may be no symptoms for months to years. Then, the following symptoms may occur over the course of 1 to 3 years:

  • Swollen lymph glands all over the body
  • Fungal infections of the mouth, fingernails, toes
  • Repeated vaginal infections ( ]]>yeast]]> and ]]>Trichomonas]]> )
  • Development of lots of warts
  • Exacerbations of prior conditions, such as ]]>eczema]]> , ]]>psoriasis]]> , herpes infection
  • ]]>Shingles]]>
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Chronic ]]>diarrhea]]>

It can be 10 years or more before HIV progresses to AIDS. This happens when T helper cell levels fall below certain levels and opportunistic infections arise. Examples of opportunistic infections and other complications of AIDS include:



The doctor will ask about your symptoms, medical history, and risk factors. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor may order the following blood tests:

  • ELISA test —used to detect HIV infection
    • 95% will have a positive test within three months of infection
    • 99% will have a positive test within six months of infection
    • If an ELISA test is negative, but you think you may have HIV, test again in 1 to 3 months
  • Western blot blood test —usually done to confirm the diagnosis if ELISA was positive


Medications can prevent, delay, or control the development of AIDS in many people infected with HIV.

Drugs That Fight HIV

These drugs are often given in combination. They are often referred to as AIDS cocktails. They include:

Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors:

  • AZT]]> (Zidovudine or ZDV)
  • ddC (Zalcitabine)
  • ddI (dideoxyinosine)
  • d4T ( ]]>Stavudine]]> )
  • 3TC ( ]]>Lamivudine]]> )
  • ]]>Emtricitabine]]> (Emtriva)
  • ]]>Abacavir]]> (Ziagen)
    • In some patients, abacavir can cause a hypersensitivity reaction, which can be life-threatening. Researchers found that screening for a particular gene can help to prevent this reaction.

Nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors:

Protease inhibitors:

Combination pill:

  • ]]>Atripla]]> (Efavirenz, Tenofovir and Emtricitabine)


Drugs That Fight AIDS-Related Infections and Cancers

People who have developed AIDS are treated with numerous drugs that help prevent:


To prevent becoming infected with HIV:

  • Abstain from sex.
  • If you do have sex use a male latex condom. This includes any sexual act that results in the exchange of bodily fluids.
  • Do not share needles for drug injection.
  • Limit your number of sexual partners.
  • Avoid sexual partners who are HIV-infected or injection drug users.
  • Avoid receiving transfusion of unscreened blood products.
  • If you are a healthcare worker:
    • Wear appropriate latex gloves and facial masks during all procedures.
    • Carefully handle and properly dispose of needles.
    • Carefully follow universal precautions.
  • If you live in a household with an HIV-infected person:
    • Wear appropriate latex gloves if handling HIV-infected bodily fluids.
    • Cover all cuts and sores, yours and the HIV-infected person's with bandages.
    • Do not share any personal hygiene items such as razors, toothbrushes, etc.
    • Carefully handle and properly dispose of needles used for medication.

Recent studies found that circumcised men were significantly less likely to develop HIV infection compared to uncircumcised men.

To prevent spreading HIV to others if you are HIV infected:

  • Abstain from sex.
  • If you do have sex, use a male latex condom. This includes any sexual act that results in the exchange of bodily fluids.
  • If you are prescribed medicines, be sure that you are taking them.
  • Inform former or potential sexual partners.
  • Do not donate blood or organs.
  • Ask your doctor about contraception.
  • If you do wish to become pregnant, talk to your doctor. There are ways to lower your baby's risk of being born infected with HIV.
  • If you have a baby, do not breastfeed.