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HIV infection

Contents of this page:


Kaposi's sarcoma - lesion on the foot
Kaposi's sarcoma - lesion on the foot
Primary HIV infection
Primary HIV infection
Kaposi's sarcoma - perianal
Kaposi's sarcoma - perianal

Alternative Names    Return to top

Human immunodeficiency virus infection

Definition    Return to top

HIV infection is a disease caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The condition gradually destroys the immune system, which makes it harder for the body to fight off infections.

This article provides a general overview. For more detailed information, see:

Causes    Return to top

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can be spread by the following:

The virus may also spread from the mother to her baby, either at birth or through breastfeeding.

People who become infected with HIV may have no symptoms for up to 10 years, but they can still pass the infection to others. After being exposed to the virus, it usually takes about 3 months for blood test results to change from HIV negative to HIV positive.

HIV has spread throughout the US. Higher concentrations of the disease are found in inner cities.

Symptoms    Return to top

HIV can cause any symptoms of illness, since infections can occur throughout the body. Some ymptoms related to HIV infection include:

Note: At the time of diagnosis with HIV infection, many people may not have experienced any symptoms.

Exams and Tests    Return to top

The HIV ELISA/Western blot test detects antibodies to the HIV virus. Having these antibodies means you are infected with HIV. If the test is negative (no antibodies found) and you have risk factors for HIV infection, you should be retested in 3 months.

If the HIV ELISA/Western blot test is positive, other blood tests can be done to determine how much HIV is in your bloodstream. White blood cell differential may also show abnormalities.

A lower-than-normal CD4 cell count may be a sign that the virus is suppressing your immune system.

Treatment    Return to top

Doctors often recommend drug therapy for patients who are committed to taking all their medications and have a CD4 count below 350 cells/mL (indicating their immune system is suppressed). Some people, including pregnant women and people with kidney or neurological problems related to HIV, may need treatment regardless of their CD4 count.

It is extremely important for people with HIV to take all doses of their medications, otherwise the virus will quickly become resistant to the drugs. Therapy always involves a combination of antiviral drugs.

People with HIV infection need to become educated about the disease and treatment so that they can be active partners in making decisions with their health care provider.

Support Groups    Return to top

See: AIDS - support group

Outlook (Prognosis)    Return to top

HIV is a chronic medical condition that can be treated, but not yet cured. There are effective ways to prevent complications and delay, but not prevent, progression to AIDS.

Almost all people infected with HIV will develop AIDS if not treated. However, there is a tiny group of people who develop AIDS very slowly, or never at all. These patients are called long-term non-progressors.

Possible Complications    Return to top

When to Contact a Medical Professional    Return to top

Call your health care provider if you have had a possible or actual exposure to AIDS or HIV infection.

Prevention    Return to top

References    Return to top

Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2007: sect XXIV.

Update Date: 4/27/2008

Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Instructor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Massachusetts General Hospital. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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