HIV infection

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at November 1, 2016
StartDiseasesHIV infection

HIV infection is a viral infection that attacks a human’s immune system. Most people contract HIV from unprotected sexual intercourse. HIV has no cure, but there are treatments that can be effective in reducing symptoms and reducing the spread of the disease.


Definition & Facts

There are 36.7 million people around the world who have the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It is a serious infection that affects the immune system, particularly certain white blood cells. The immune system is the body’s defense against germs and infections. When it is damaged, one may become more susceptible to many different illnesses.

The only way to know for sure that an individual has HIV is to get tested. However, unlike most viruses, one can never completely get rid of an HIV infection. Nonetheless, if left untreated, HIV can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Symptoms & Complaints

There are three stages to an HIV infection. The first stage happens approximately one to four weeks after initial exposure to the virus. A person may feel symptoms that are similar to the flu. Some people do not ever feel ill during this stage. Whether one has symptoms or not is not a good indicator of the presence of the HIV infection. For those who do get symptoms, they could include:

These symptoms usually are short-lived, only a week or two. The second stage of an HIV infection is asymptomatic and can last up to ten years. Despite the fact that there are not any symptoms, the virus is already damaging many parts of the body, especially the immune system. By the time one enters the third stage, there is a lot of damage to the immune system. Patients will probably have a lot of infections at this point, but the damaged immune system has a hard time fighting them. Other symptoms at this stage may include:


The HIV infection is caused by the HIV virus. It is spread through blood, semen, or vaginal fluid. Once the virus is inside the body, it starts destroying CD4 cells which are white blood cells that help the body fight infections. Most people contract the HIV infection by having unprotected sex with someone who has the virus. Others may contract the virus by sharing needles during intravenous drug use with someone who is HIV infected.

Additionally, infected mothers can pass the virus to their babies during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. Since the HIV virus does not survive well outside of the body, it is highly unlikely to spread through casual contact such as kissing or sharing glasses or eating utensils.

The virus is thought to have originated from a similar virus in monkeys in Africa. Humans may have first contracted it when they came in contact with the blood of infected monkeys that they had killed for meat. The first known cases of AIDS in the United States were seen in the early 1980s.

Diagnosis & Tests

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommends HIV testing for all people as part of their routine medical care. It is important to catch the infection early so that treatment can be effective. However, anyone who thinks they have been exposed to someone with the HIV infection at any time can contact their physician or a clinic. They can help patients determine if they have the HIV virus.

Individuals will probably undergo a series of tests to make an actual diagnosis. The most common HIV test screens for the antibody to the HIV infection rather than the HIV infection itself. Antibodies may not appear until several months after exposure to the virus, and one may get a false negative result when they are tested early after exposure. Some tests that often prove more beneficial include:

Treatment & Therapy

While there are no cures for HIV, there are effective treatments which can help keep the infection under control. A combination of medications called antiretroviral therapy (ART) may be prescribed. By the end of 2015, only about 46 percent of the people infected with HIV were using ART treatments. There are several different types of ART treatments, and a doctor will choose the right ones for each patient. She may even try several different types before finding the one that works best for an individual. Early treatment is essential to stop the damaging effects to the immune system. Patients must take the medications exactly as prescribed for them to have beneficial results.

In addition to medication, there are some measures one can take to help keep the immune system strong. First, one needs to eat a healthy diet. Smokers need to quit smoking. Additionally, it is important to monitor CD4 cells, so one become aware of how the immune system is reacting to the virus. Finally, counseling and psychotherapy can help reduce stress and help patients deal with the emotions caused by having the HIV infection.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Prevention of HIV infections is very important since this virus has no cure. Medical personnel who may come into accidental contact with bodily fluids of HIV infected patients need to take precautions including double gloves, for example. Additionally, they may be treated with ART if risk is high for them.

Individuals can prevent HIV infections by practicing safe sex, such as wearing a condom when having sex. People should also never share needles. In addition, infected women who become pregnant may be treated with ART to prevent their unborn babies from getting the disease.