Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey
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New Brunswick, NJ 08903-2681
HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus.
If you have HIV, you have an infection that damages your immune system over time, and causes AIDS.
AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
It is the final stage of an HIV infection when your immune system is damaged and too weak to fight off ordinary infections.
When foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses, get into your body, they can cause infections.
These events activate your body’s defenses.
The white blood cells of your immune system are part of your body’s defenses.
One type of white blood cell, called helper T lymphocytes, or helper T cells,
strengthen your immune system’s response to infection in two ways.
First, helper T cells release chemicals that attract other white blood cells to the site of infection.
These additional white blood cells attack the invading bacteria or virus
as well as other infected cells.
Second, helper T cells release chemicals that cause other white blood cells to multiply.
These new white blood cells create markers, called antibodies,
which can identify this same foreign invader throughout your body.
Antibodies attach to the bacteria or virus, marking them as targets for your immune system to destroy them.
If you have HIV, it travels though your blood and other body fluids to infect and kill certain white blood cells.
The virus enters helper T cells, which are the primary target.
Once inside, the virus makes many copies of itself.
As these virus particles are made, they leave the damaged helper T cell to infect other cells.
The T cell loses its ability to protect the body from the ongoing infection and dies.
In this way, HIV spreads and kills more of your helper T cells, weakening your immune system.
As a result, other types of infections are able to take advantage of your body’s inability to defend itself.
These infections are called opportunistic infections.
If you have an HIV infection and one or more opportunistic infections, you have AIDS.
Some of the common AIDS-related opportunistic infections are:
inflammation of the tissues covering your brain and spinal cord, called meningitis;
inflammation of your brain, called encephalitis;
respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis;
intestinal illnesses, such as chronic diarrhea caused by infectious parasites;
and cancers, such as Kaposi’s sarcoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
HIV passes from person to person through infected body fluids.
HIV can enter your body during unprotected sex, while sharing drug injection needles, during your own childbirth,
while breastfeeding from your mother, or from contaminated blood or blood products.
Although there is no cure for HIV, drugs called antiretroviral medications can reduce the amount of HIV in your body.
One class of antiretroviral medication, called entry or fusion inhibitors,
disrupts the HIV infection process by preventing the virus from attaching to your cells.
Other classes of antiretroviral medications include reverse transcriptase inhibitors, protease inhibitors, and integrase inhibitors.
These drugs prevent the creation, assembly, and spread of new viruses.
Your doctor may prescribe a combination of these drug classes known as highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART.
Antiretroviral medication doesn’t completely remove HIV from your body,
but slows it down enough to enable your immune system to fight infections.
Regular blood tests will let your doctor know how effective your antiretroviral medication is in controlling HIV.
If the number of helper T cells is high enough in your blood sample, your medication is working.
Treatments for the opportunistic infections of AIDS are medications specific for each type of infection.
For example, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if you have pneumonia or tuberculosis.
To avoid getting or spreading an HIV infection,
know your HIV status and your partner’s status by getting tested regularly.
The most effective way to prevent HIV infection is to avoid vaginal and anal sex.
When engaging in sexual activity, you will be less likely to contract HIV if you only have sex with one uninfected partner,
or use latex condoms for protection.
Avoid using injectable illegal drugs or sharing drug needles because the needles may have the virus on them.
Avoid intoxication from drugs or alcohol because you are more likely to engage in unsafe, sexual behavior.