Expert Answers Factual Answers to Your Sexual Health Questions
What is the cause of HIV?
I don’t understand what HIV is and what causes the disease. Can you help me understand the cause of HIV?
Lisa Oldson, MD on November 23, 2011
You’re asking a good question, and I’m happy to help you learn more about HIV.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a type of sexually transmitted virus that can attack the body’s immune system. People usually get HIV from unprotected sex or intravenous drug use. Unfortunately, when HIV enters the body, it begins to damage the body’s CD4+ T-cells that are normally involved in the body’s immune response to infections.
When HIV lives in the body for a while, it can attack so many CD4+ T-cells that the body can’t fight infections well. If the person with HIV doesn’t start treatment, HIV could lead to AIDS and other complications. Luckily, with treatment ⎼ highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) ⎼ it’s often possible to slow the progression of HIV.
In fact, with treatment, many people with HIV are living longer and healthier lives. How long? The newer HIV medications are still being studied, but it’s definitely a good idea to save for retirement!
Now that we’ve talked about what HIV is, I also encourage you to get tested for HIV. Why? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 20% of people with HIV are living with an unknown infection.
And it’s possible to go as many as 10 years without having any noticeable signs of HIV...so screening is the best way to find an HIV infection. The CDC also recommends HIV screening for people ages 13-64.
Or if you have more questions, you can read further about how HIV testing works in our Expert Guides.
Thanks for your question and I wish you the best of health.
Dr. Oldson is Medical Director of the Analyte Physicians Group. She is on staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, as well as Clinical Instructor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. Her areas of expertise include STDs (with a particular clinical emphasis on herpes), women's health, preventive medicine, diabetes, obesity and weight management, and mood and anxiety disorders. Dr. Oldson was educated at Rush Medical College and completed her residency at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, IL.