Anonymous on November 11, 2011

What can HIV do to you?

I’m a little unclear on what HIV does to the body. So, I’m curious: what can HIV do to you?

answered by Lisa Oldson, MD on November 11, 2011

I can understand your concern and your confusion about what HIV can do in the body. I can help by giving you a little more information about what HIV does in the body if it’s not treated.   

When someone contracts HIV, the virus attacks and damages a type of white blood cell called CD4+ T-cells. These serve an important function in the body’s immune response to infections and diseases. In addition to attacking CD4+ T-cells ⎼ which increases the risk for serious infections ⎼ untreated early HIV may also contribute to other complications including kidney disease, liver disease, cancer, and heart disease.

If someone has HIV for a while, and it isn’t treated, the virus attacks so many CD4+ T-cells that the body has a hard time fighting illnesses. If the T-cell count gets below 200 cells/mm3, doctors say a person has AIDS. This occurs in the later stages of untreated HIV infection…often up to 10 years after the person initially contracted HIV.

Having AIDS means the person will have a hard time fighting other diseases and illnesses like pneumonia, certain cancers and other infections. Unfortunately complications from AIDS can be fatal.

The good news is, progression to AIDS can be prevented or slowed dramatically with our current medications called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). In fact there are recent studies suggesting that someone with a new HIV infection who gets immediately into treatment may have a lifespan approaching that of someone without HIV. In other words, those diagnosed today with a new HIV infection should certainly plan to save for their retirement.

Still, HIV is a serious disease and it’s best to protect yourself from it as much as possible. That means using protection for any sexual activity (anal sex, vaginal sex and oral sex) and avoiding shared needles.

Keep in mind that getting regularly screened for HIV is also a great choice for your health. If you do happen to get HIV, regular screening can detect a new infection so that you and your doctors can begin treatment.

For more on HIV and how test for it, please visit our Expert Guide to HIV. Thanks for your question and I wish you the best of health.

Related info:

Lisa Oldson, MD

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.

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