The Effects of HIV/AIDS on Different Systems of the Body

AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is the potentially fatal disease caused by HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus. HIV causes severe damage to the immune system. In addition to harming the immune system, HIV and AIDS damage the other systems in the body, including the respiratory, nervous, gastrointestinal and skin systems. While no cure exists for HIV or AIDS, the damage caused by these diseases can be treated. Prevention and education can keep the diseases from spreading.

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Immune System

HIV destroys CD4 cells, the white blood cells that help the immune system fight off disease. The Mayo Clinic reports that left untreated, HIV can become AIDS in as little as 10 years 2. During the course of this time, HIV damages the immune system to the point where opportunistic infections, or diseases that would be destroyed by a healthy immune system, start to set in. Common symptoms of opportunistic infections manifest themselves in various systems of the body, and include:

  • night sweats
  • fever
  • chills
  • shortness of breath
  • white spots in the mouth
  • fatigue
  • skin rash
  • weight loss

Respiratory System

As HIV develops into AIDS, infections such as pneumocystis pneumonia or PCP, tuberculosis and Kaposi's sarcoma can cause severe respiratory conditions. reports PCP is the most common opportunistic infection in people with HIV 1. Without treatment, 85 percent of those with HIV would develop the infection 1. Frequently appearing signs and symptoms of respiratory conditions resulting from HIV or AIDS related infections include difficulty breathing, dry cough and fever.

Nervous System

A weakened immune system allows bacteria, viruses, and fungus to infect the nervous system of people with HIV and AIDS. Common AIDS-related conditions affecting the nervous system include AIDS dementia complex, lymphoma and toxoplasmosis. General symptoms of these conditions consist of headaches, slowed thinking, poor short-term memory, and changes in behavior and coordination. People with HIV and AIDS should see a doctor if any of the those symptoms appear.

Gastrointestinal System

Gastrointestinal disorders are among the most common conditions for those diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. Frequently experienced GI disruptions include:

  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • weight loss
  • abdominal pain
  • GI bleeding
  • GI tumors

Dr. Johannes Koch of the University of California, San Francisco, reports that at least 50 percent of people with HIV will suffer GI discomfort sometime during the course of their illness 3. The most common GI discomfort is diarrhea and weight loss.

Skin System

Many skin conditions that affect healthy people also occur in people with HIV or AIDS, but a weakened immune system often makes the conditions more severe and more difficult to treat. Common skin conditions associated with HIV and AIDS include dermatitis, psoriasis and hives. Most are treatable with medications. AIDS patients can also develop a rare skin cancer known as Kaposi’s sarcoma. This disease is characterized by pink, purple or brown lesions on the skin that develop into tumors. Lesions can be removed with surgery, but if the cancer spreads to lymph nodes or internal organs, chemotherapy and radiation might be required.