What is HIV?
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a primarily sexually transmitted virus that attacks the body’s immune system.
HIV infects special cells, called CD4 cells (also called T-cells), that are found in the blood and are responsible for fighting infection. After becoming infected, the CD4 cells are destroyed by HIV. Although the body will attempt to produce more CD4 cells, their numbers will eventually decline and the immune system will stop working. This leaves a person who is infected with HIV with a high risk of developing a serious infection or disease, such meningitis, encephalitits etc. This is therefore an infection which can effect the nervous system.
There is no cure for HIV and no vaccine to stop you from becoming infected. However, since the 1990s, drugs and therapy has been developed to slow progression of HIV and prolong life expectancy.
What is AIDS?
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a term that is used to describe the latter stages of HIV, when the immune system has stopped working and the person develops a life-threatening condition, such as pneumonia (infection of the lungs).
The term AIDS was first used by doctors when the exact nature of the HIV virus was not fully understood. However, the term is no longer widely used because it is too general to describe the many different conditions that can affect somebody with HIV. Specialists now prefer to use the terms advanced or late-stage HIV infection.
What are the signs and symptoms?
The initial stage of HIV is known as primary HIV infection. In people who are infected with HIV, 60% will develop associated symptoms, usually two to six weeks after they are first infected with HIV.
Symptoms of primary HIV infection may include:
- sore throat,
- joint pain,
- muscle pain,
- swollen glands (nodes), or
- a blotchy rash on the chest.
These early symptoms are often very mild, so it is easy to mistake them for another condition, such as a cold or glandular fever.
After the initial symptoms listed above, HIV will often not cause any further symptoms for many years. This is known as asymptomatic HIV infection. During this time, the virus is still reproducing and damaging your immune system.
Late-stage HIV infection (AIDS)
Left untreated, HIV will lower the number of CD4 cells in your body to a dangerously low level, and your immune system will stop working. It normally takes 10 years for the virus to damage the immune system in this way. A damaged immune system will inevitably result in you developing a serious infection.
Possible symptoms of a serious infection caused by a damaged immune system include:
- persistent tiredness,
- night sweats,
- unexplained weight loss,
- persistent diarrhoea,
- blurred vision,
- white spots on your tongue or mouth,
- dry cough,
- shortness of breath,
- a fever of above 37C (100F) that lasts a number of weeks, or
- swollen glands that last for more than three months.
AIDS-related illnesses, such as TB, pneumonia and some cancers, may appear. Many of these, though serious, can be treated to some extent and some are likely to improve if you start treatment and your CD4 count increases.