Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) (cont.)

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What are the complications of HIV?

The complications of HIV infection result mainly from a weakened immune system. The virus also infects the brain, causing degeneration, problems with thinking, or even dementia. This makes the person more vulnerable to certain types of conditions and infections (see Table 1). Treatment with ART can prevent, reverse, or mitigate the effects of HIV infection. Some patients on ART may be at risk for developing cholesterol or blood-sugar problems.

Although many effective medications are on the market, the virus can become resistant to any drug. This can be a serious complication if it means that a less effective medicine must be used. To reduce the risk of resistance, patients should take their medications as prescribed and call their physician immediately if they feel they need to stop one or more drugs.

What is the prognosis for HIV infection?

Left untreated, HIV is almost always a fatal illness with half of people dying within nine months of diagnosis of an AIDS-defining condition. The use of ART has dramatically changed this grim picture. People who are on an effective ART regimen have life expectancies that are similar to or only moderately less than the uninfected population. Unfortunately, many people with HIV deal with socioeconomic issues, substance-abuse issues, or other problems that interfere with their ability or desire to take medications.

Can HIV infection be prevented?

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Sexual abstinence is completely effective in eliminating sexual transmission, but educational campaigns have not been successful in promoting abstinence in at-risk populations. Monogamous sexual intercourse between two uninfected partners also eliminates sexual transmission of the virus. Using barrier methods, such as condoms, during sexual intercourse markedly reduces the risk of HIV transmission. These measures have had some success in blunting the rate of new cases, especially in high-risk areas such as sub-Saharan Africa or Haiti. As discussed above, medications may be used to reduce the risk of HIV infection if used within hours of an exposure. There also is data that if uninfected people can take antiretroviral medications, in particular tenofovir disoproxil fumarate plus emtricitabine (TDF/FTC or Truvada) once daily, that it markedly reduces the risk of sexual transmission. Perhaps the most effective way to reduce HIV transmission is for the HIV-infected partner to be on ART with undetectable levels of virus in their blood. As noted above, a pregnant woman with HIV can reduce the risk of passing the infection to her baby by taking medications during pregnancy and labor and avoiding breastfeeding.

Needle-stick injuries can be prevented by touching syringes with only one hand and by using more modern needles that have retractable sleeves. Use of gowns, gloves, masks, and eye protection can reduce the risk of exposure to infected secretions in high-risk settings. For intravenous-drug abusers, use of clean needles and elimination of needle sharing reduces the risk of transmission.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/21/2013

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