Although HIV and AIDS are closely related terms, they refer to two distinct conditions. In a nutshell, people with HIV have been infected by the human immunodeficiency virus while a person with AIDS is in the final stage of infection when his or her body is no longer able to able to fight off illness. The course of an HIV infection goes through three stages, but it’s important to know that not every person with HIV will necessarily progress to AIDS. Early detection and treatment have a huge impact on the progression of illness.
The acute phase sets in within a few weeks of infection, when the virus is rapidly reproducing in the body and destroying CD4 cells, a type of immune system cell. During this phase, patients typically feel sick, like they have a bad case of the flu. Patients in the acute phase are likely to experience fever, aches and pains, swollen glands, and a sore throat. Headache and rash are also fairly common symptoms at this point. This is a crucial time for intervention for two reasons. First of all, people with HIV are most likely to transmit the virus to another person during this stage. Also, antiretroviral therapy can have a lot of benefit at this stage.
The acute phase settles into a chronic phase as the body’s immune system begins to fight back against the virus and get the virus population down. As virus levels decrease to a fairly stable set point, CD4 levels increase, though not to the same level as before the infection. Called “chronic” because it can last a long time, this phase is also known as the “latent” stage because patients have relatively few symptoms. Without any kind of treatment, this stage can last up to ten years, but with antiretroviral therapy, it can last for several decades. Though overall health tends to be stable during this stage, the virus is continuing to grow.
The final stage of an HIV infection is called an acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. This condition is diagnosed when CD4 counts fall below 200. Without treatment, AIDS patients survive an average of three years and usually die from an opportunistic illness that their body cannot fight off. However, antiretroviral treatment can keep many patients from ever reaching this stage. For more information about HIV and AIDS, check out www.HealthDigest.com.