Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is an infection caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which kills or damages the body’s immune cells. The body can’t fight infections and certain cancers. People with AIDS may get life-threatening opportunistic infections, which are caused by viruses or bacteria that usually don’t make healthy people sick.
HIV infection can result from sexual activity, using an infected needle, or blood transfusion. It can also pass from a mother to her unborn child or to a baby through breastfeeding. AIDS develops when the immune system is so weak that it cannot fight infection, usually months or years after infection with HIV.
Many people have no symptoms when first infected with HIV. Most people stay symptom-free for months or years, even though the virus is still active.
Some people have a flulike illness, with fever, tiredness, and enlarged lymph nodes, called swollen glands. Blood levels of CD4-positive T cells (also called T4 cells), key infection-fighting cells, drop. Other symptoms seen before full-blown AIDS may include lack of energy, weight loss, frequent fevers and sweats, long-lasting or frequent yeast infections, and short-term memory loss. Some people develop herpes infections that cause shingles or mouth, genital, or anal sores.
The most common symptoms of AIDS include infection of the lungs, brain, or eyes. Additional symptoms include trouble thinking, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. Thrush, a fungal infection that causes painful swallowing and a white coating on the tongue, may occur. AIDS increases the risk of getting skin cancer and lymphoma (cancer of lymphatic tissue, part of the immune system).
The health care provider will take a medical history, do a physical examination, and test blood for HIV and for the presence of other infections. A chest x-ray and other tests may be done.
Medicine will help the immune system fight HIV. A specialist in infectious deseases will help coordinate your care. Several medicines may keep HIV from growing. Other medicines may treat additional symptoms. A nutritionist can help plan a healthy diet.
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