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What is Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV)? Print E-mail
Written by Glenn Rosenberg   
Sunday, 04 October 2009
Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, infection damages the body's immune system. Over time, it leads to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
What is going on in the body?

HIV affects the immune system in broad and devastating ways. Its main target is a special immune system cell called the CD4+ T lymphocyte. These cells help the body fight infections of all kinds. When HIV infects these cells, it decreases their numbers and affects how the cells that are left function.

After an adult is infected with HIV, he or she usually has no obvious symptoms for 5 to 10 years. During this time, however, the virus is slowly attacking the immune system. When the immune system is weakened enough, it becomes susceptible to other organisms that the body can usually fight off or keep under control.

These other organisms include bacteria, other viruses, fungi, and parasites.

Many serious health problems occur as a result of the immune system damage caused by HIV. The most serious is AIDS.
What are the causes and risks of the disease?

HIV infection is caused by a type of virus known as a lentivirus. Seventy percent of HIV infections worldwide are sexually transmitted, or spread by sexual contact. The remaining 30% of the infections are spread in one of the following ways:
- by contact with HIV-infected blood or other secretions at the site of a cut or wound
- by skin punctures from needles or other sharp devices contaminated with HIV-infected blood or other body secretions
- from contaminated blood products received before March 1985, when a screening test for HIV in blood products was first used
- from mother to infant around the time of birth
- through breastfeeding

Following are some of the risk factors for HIV infections:
- having received blood transfusions or blood products, especially from 1975 to March 1985
- having received pooled plasma for treatment of hemophilia, a blood clotting disorder
- intravenous drug use
- sexual activity with an infected individual, particularly male homosexual contact

What are the treatments for the disease?

There are a number of medicines that effectively treat HIV. Over the past few years, combinations of certain drugs have been very promising in controlling HIV. Some of them are as follows:
- antibiotics, such as trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole or pentamidine
- antifungal medicines, such as amphotericin B and flucytosine
- antiparastic medicines, such as pyrimethamine
- antiviral medicines, such as zidovudine, lamivudine, nevirapine, and ganciclovir
- glucocorticoids, such as prednisone
- protease inhibitors, such as indinavir

People who have HIV infection face significant health problems and stress. Following are some helpful interventions:
- Eat a healthy diet, following the food guide pyramid.
- Get plenty of rest and sleep.
- Join support groups.
- Take medicines to deal with emotional symptoms.
- Use psychotherapy.
- Use relaxation therapy and other stress management techniques.

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Unfortunately, most HIV medicines have many side effects, depending on the drug being taken. Some more common side effects include:
- diarrhea
- nausea
- rashes
- vomiting

Some less common side effects are as follows:
- changes in the brain and behavior
- inflammation of the pancreas
- kidney stones

What happens after treatment for the disease?

There is no cure for HIV infection at this time. The goal of treatment is to keep the virus under control with the hope of preventing further immune damage. Currently, a person must be treated for life.
How is the disease monitored?

Someone with HIV infection will have regular visits with the healthcare provider, along with periodic blood tests. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the provider.

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