Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is a virus that attacks your immune system. This makes it hard for your body to fight infection and disease. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). But having HIV does not mean that you have AIDS. Treatment of HIV may prevent or delay HIV from developing into AIDS.

HIV often causes flu-like symptoms soon after a person gets infected. These early symptoms go away in a few weeks. After that, you may not have signs of illness for many years. But as the virus multiplies in your body, symptoms reappear and then remain. Fatigue, weight loss, fever, night sweats, diarrhea, and other symptoms are common. If HIV is not treated and progresses to AIDS, your symptoms get worse and your body is less and less able to fight infections like pneumonia and tuberculosis.

Medicines are the main treatment for HIV. You will likely have to take several medicines. By fighting the virus, these medicines can help your immune system stay healthy and delay or prevent AIDS, and may help you live longer. Medicines for HIV are called antiretrovirals.


What are the symptoms of HIV?

HIV may not cause symptoms early on. People who do have symptoms may mistake them for the flu or mono. The symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Muscle aches.
  • Skin rash.
  • Headache.
  • Sore throat.
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and groin.
  • Joint pain.
  • Night sweats.
  • Diarrhea.

These first symptoms can range from mild to severe. They usually go away on their own after 2 to 3 weeks. But many people don't have symptoms, or they have such mild symptoms that they don't notice them at this stage.

Later symptoms

After the early symptoms go away, a person who has HIV may not have symptoms again for years. But if HIV isn't treated, symptoms will come back, be more severe, and remain. These symptoms usually include:

  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Night sweats.
  • Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss.
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and groin.
  • Diarrhea or other bowel changes.
  • Dry cough or shortness of breath.
  • Nail changes.
  • Pain when swallowing.
  • Repeated outbreaks of cold sores or genital herpes sores.
  • Mouth sores or a yeast infection of the mouth (thrush).


How is HIV diagnosed?

Doctors use tests to find HIV antibodies or antigens in blood, urine, or saliva. If the test is positive, another test, such as a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, may be done to be sure. Sometimes a PCR test is done at the same time as the first test.


How is HIV treated?

HIV is treated with a mix of medicines called antiretroviral therapy (ART). Often the medicines are combined into a single pill. ART slows the rate at which the virus grows and can reduce the amount of virus in your body. Taking the medicine can prevent AIDS and help you stay healthy.

Experts suggest that people start treatment for HIV as soon as they know that they're infected.

It's important to take your medicines exactly as directed. When treatment doesn't work, it's often because the virus has become resistant to the medicine. This can happen if you miss doses.