Finding out you have HIV doesn't mean a death sentence. However, if you are infected with HIV and don’t get treatment, HIV will eventually overwhelm your immune system. This will lead to your being diagnosed with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). People with AIDS have severely compromised (weakened) immune systems which can lead to infections, malignancies and ultimately death.

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The Progression to AIDS

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the virus that causes the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). TYou can have HIV without having AIDS, but you can't have AIDS without also having HIV. Many people live their entire lives with HIV and don't get AIDS. This is because we have exceptional treatments, known as antiretroviral therapy or ART, that prolongs both the quantity and quality of life. HIV medicines help people with HIV live longer, healthier lives. HIV medicines also reduce the risk of HIV transmission (the spread of HIV to others). Unfortunately, many people with HIV are either diagnosed late in their disease or do not access the lifesaving treatments that are currently available.

Opportunistic Infections

We carry many germs in our bodies, from bacteria and protozoa to fungi and viruses. A healthy immune system (specifically having sufficient numbers of functioning CD4+ T cells) can control these germs, but when the immune system is weakened by HIV, these germs can get out of control and cause health problems. Infections that take advantage of weakness in the immune defenses are called 'opportunistic.'

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed a list of opportunistic infections (OIs) that, when combined with being HIV-positive, lead to a diagnosis of AIDS; the final and most serious stage of the virus.

People with advanced HIV infection are more susceptible to certain HIV or AIDS-related cancers, which include Kaposi's Sarcoma, Lymphoma and invasive cancers of the anus or cervix.

HIV-associated Dementia

HIV-associated dementia, also referred to as AIDS-dementia complex (ADC) is a devastating progressive neurological condition that typically occurs after years of HIV infection and is associated with low CD4+ T cell levels. The essential diagnostic features of ADC are disabling cognitive impairment accompanied by motor dysfunction, speech problems and behavioral change. While use of ART can sometimes stabilize or even improve neurologic functioning, without therapy, the disease is most often progressive and fatal.

AIDS is not a death sentence

Having a low CD4 count or being diagnosed with AIDS does not necessarily mean that there is no hope of recovering. Prompt initiation of ART can often restore the immune system even among those who have AIDS. In addition, antibiotics can be prescribed to help prevent the development of certain OIs in persons with low CD4 counts.