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June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
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What is HIV/AIDS?

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is an infectious disease that was identified in the United States in 1981. This disease was first noted to occur among homosexual and bisexual males in the U.S. However, AIDS now affects all populations—men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, and the young as well as the elderly.

AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which damages the immune system. In a healthy person, the immune system defends against the many different organisms that can enter the body and cause sickness. Two main types of white blood cells are essential to proper immune function—B cells and T cells. B cells produce antibodies, which destroy foreign organisms that enter the body. T cells help regulate the production of these antibodies. The T cells are further divided into Helper T cells (also called CD4+ T cells), which increase production of antibodies, and Suppressor T cells, which decrease production of antibodies. Healthy people have up to twice as many CD4+ T cells as Suppressor T cells.

HIV attacks and destroys the CD4+ T cells. As more and more CD4+ T cells are destroyed, the immune system stops working and the person develops AIDS.

Opportunistic Infections

Because their ability to resist disease is impaired, people with HIV and AIDS get sick often, and have great difficulty recovering. Germs and diseases that would normally be destroyed—or mitigated—by a healthy immune system can cause significant disease in people with HIV and AIDS. Such infections are called “opportunistic” because they take advantage of a weakened immune system to cause disease. Some of the more serious conditions that people with HIV and AIDS are more susceptible to include the following:

People do not die from HIV infection, rather they die from opportunistic infections and other diseases their immune system is unable to fight off.

AIDS-related Complex (ARC)

AIDS-related complex (ARC) is a group of symptoms that occur after HIV infection, which are suggestive of, but not diagnosed as, AIDS. Symptoms of ARC include the following:

  • Recurrent fever
  • Night sweats
  • Weakness
  • Diarrhea
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Bruising
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Symptoms of HIV/AIDS

Many people do not experience any symptoms when they are first infected with HIV, and many people don't have symptoms at all for many years.  

In the same manner, you can't rely on symptoms to tell if you or someone you know has AIDS. The symptoms associated with AIDS are common among many other diseases and infections. An AIDS diagnosis can only be made by a doctor, who will use specific criteria established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The following may be warning signs of HIV:

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Dry cough
  • Recurring fever or profuse night sweats
  • Profound and unexplained fatigue
  • Swollen lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than a week
  • Sore throat
  • White spots or unusual blemishes on the tongue, in the mouth, or in the throat
  • Pneumonia
  • Red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin, or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
  • Memory loss, depression, or other neurological disorders

Populations Most At Risk for HIV

People at high risk for becoming infected with HIV include the following groups:

  • Homosexual or bisexual men who are sexually active
  • The sexual partners of homosexual and bisexual men
  • Heterosexuals who have more than one sexual partner
  • Anyone who has vaginal, oral, or anal sex with an HIV-infected person
  • People who share needles or syringes (for IV drug use, tattooing, or body piercing) and the sexual partners of people who share needles or syringes
  • Infants born to and/or breast-fed by mothers who are infected with HIV

In addition, there is a very small risk to people who receive transfusions of blood. This group of people was once at high risk. However, in 1985, methods were put in place to screen for and destroy HIV in donated blood products. Today, people rarely get HIV from blood transfusions because all blood and blood products are screened and treated.

Causes of HIV Infection

HIV is carried in certain bodily fluids and it can be passed from person-to-person through the exchange of these fluids. These fluids include blood, semen, pre-ejaculatory fluid, vaginal fluid, breast milk, and other bodily fluids that contain blood.

A person can become infected with HIV in the following ways:

  • Through unprotected (without a condom) sexual contact with a person infected with HIV. Both heterosexual or homosexual contact is risky. The virus can enter the body through tiny cuts or sores in the lining of the vagina, vulva, penis, rectum, or mouth during anal, vaginal, or oral sex.
  • By sharing needles or syringes that have been contaminated with small amounts of blood from someone who has HIV.
  • Rarely, through blood transfusions. This risk has dropped since new methods were put in place in 1985 to identify HIV in blood products and to treat blood products to destroy the virus. Today, blood is screened and treated, and people rarely get HIV from blood transfusions and blood products.

If a woman has HIV, she can pass the infection to her child. This can occur in a couple of ways:

  • Before or during birth
  • Through breast-feeding; breast milk can carry HIV

Health care workers may be exposed to certain bodily fluids that can carry HIV. These fluids are seen only in the health care setting:

  • Fluid surrounding the brain and the spinal cord
  • Fluid surrounding bone joints
  • Fluid surrounding an unborn baby

HIV has been found in the saliva of infected people, but no studies have shown that the virus is spread by contact with saliva or through kissing.  At this time, however, it is unclear what the risk of infection is from so-called "deep" kissing or "French" kissing, which can involve the exchange of large amounts of saliva.

HIV is not spread through sweat, tears, urine, or feces.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – National Prevention Information Network



Adapted from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention

Last reviewed August 2003 by ]]>Richard Glickman-Simon, MD]]>

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.



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