Anonymous on November 8, 2011

What is the HIV virus?

What is the HIV virus? How does it make people sick and why is the HIV virus such a big deal?

answered by Lisa Oldson, MD on November 8, 2011

You’ve asked a smart question. It’s easy to become confused about HIV with all the information out there...but I’m happy to help you with a little background about HIV.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a type of virus that is passed through bodily fluids including semen, blood, vaginal secretions and breast milk. HIV transmission can occur during any type of sexual activity with an infected partner. Anal and vaginal sex are the types of sexual activity most likely to transmit HIV, but it’s also possible to get HIV from oral sex and in rare instances from French kissing (if cuts or open sores are present in the mouth). HIV transmission can also happen when people share needles during intravenous drug use.

What does HIV do in the body? HIV attacks a specific kind of immune cell called a T-cell or, more specifically, a CD4+ T-cell. These are a type of white blood cell that mount the body’s immune response to fight off infections.

How does HIV make people sick? As HIV attacks the CD4+ T-cells, the body’s immune system weakens and it can become difficult for the body to fight off infections. If HIV is not treated, the CD4+ T-cell levels can drop. When the count is below 200 cells/mm3  doctors say a person has AIDS. And unfortunately, complications from AIDS could result in death.

Luckily, treatment is now very successful at helping people live longer and healthier lives with HIV. Once a person’s HIV status is known, doctors can help determine the best timing and drug combinations to manage the virus. And luckily, when someone with HIV starts treatment at the right time and continues to take the medication, it’s even possible to reduce the amount of virus in the blood to undetectable levels (although this does not mean HIV is cured).

Bottom line? HIV attacks the immune system, but with treatment many people can have a higher quality of life despite HIV infection. To learn more about HIV including HIV symptoms and testing, visit our Expert Guide to HIV.

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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