Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes AIDS. The virus survives by attacking T-cells (also known as CD4 cells), which are crucial to the body’s immune system. Once the virus has taken over these protector cells, it uses them to duplicate itself before destroying them. When CD4 cells dip too low, the body becomes unable to protect itself from diseases and infections, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). When this happens, AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) can develop. There are over one million HIV-positive people living in the United States. Of these, about one in every six is unaware of their infection, according to HHS. The agency reports that men who have sex with men are the most seriously impacted by HIV.
Upon contracting HIV, the virus immediately begins to affect the immune system. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people with HIV naturally progress through the following three stages. However, each individual case is unique and may or may not trigger any symptoms.
- Acute infection: This initial time period typically occurs roughly two to four weeks following infection. The body reacts to the virus by exhibiting flu-like symptoms including fever, fatigue, sore throat and swollen glands. The CDC reports that HIV levels are highest during this time, making a person more likely to spread the virus to others.
- Clinical latency: During this time, HIV shows no symptoms and replicates much more slowly compared to the acute infection period. However, the virus can still be spread to others during this time. People receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART) can stay in this period for decades, according to the CDC. Patients who aren’t undergoing ART therapy may be able to stay in this stage for up to 10 years before CD4 cells begin to drop again.
- AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome): An HIV-positive person is diagnosed with AIDS when their CD4 cells drop below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood, reports the CDC. Normal levels are between 500 and 1,600. CD4 cells are crucial for the immune system to operate properly. Opportunistic illnesses refer to secondary illnesses that are brought on by HIV. If an HIV-positive person develops one or more opportunistic infections, they may be diagnosed with AIDS, according to the CDC.
HIV has no cure, but available treatment options can greatly improve a person’s survival and quality of life. Drugs used to treat HIV are called antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). There are currently over 30 types of FDA-approved ARVs, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. If taken consistently and as directed, ARVs can simultaneously lower HIV load while increasing CD4 cell count. CD4 cells are crucial to the immune system and are what help fight infections and diseases. If HIV-positive people do not follow an ARV regimen, their overall health with deteriorate.