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HIV & AIDS Health Center

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AIDS, HIV, and Pneumocystis Pneumonia (PCP)

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Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) is a serious infection that causes inflammation and fluid buildup in the lungs. It is caused by a fungus called Pneumocystis jiroveci. Likely spread through the air, this fungus is very common. Most people are exposed to it by age 3 or 4. A healthy immune system can easily control it. But it causes a type of pneumonia in people with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS. This is why it's called an opportunistic infection. Although it's rare, PCP can affect other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes, liver, and bone marrow.

Pneumocystis Pneumonia in People with HIV/AIDS

Before HIVmedication was available, PCP occurred in 70% to 80% of HIV-positive people. The number of cases has decreased a great deal. This is due to highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) and PCP-preventive drugs.

Here are other things you should know:

  • PCP is still the most common opportunistic infection in people with HIV/AIDS. Those with a CD4 cell count less than 200 are at highest risk. (CD4 cells are a type of immune system cell. HIV attacks these cells.)
  • About 9% of patients with HIV/AIDS who are hospitalized have PCP.
  • PCP is still a major cause of death in AIDS patients in the United States. The mortality rate is between 5% and 40%, even with treatment.
  • PCP is a highly treatable and preventable infection.



Symptoms of Pneumocystis Pneumonia

At first, PCP may cause no symptoms. Call your doctor right away if you have HIV/AIDS or a weakened immune system and have any of these signs or symptoms of PCP. It can be fatal.


Diagnosing Pneumocystis Pneumonia

PCP can be diagnosed with the help of medical tests. These may include:

  • Chest X-ray
  • Special lab tests examining discharge from the lungs and airways (called sputum induction)
  • Blood tests including evaluation for decreased oxygen levels
  • If sputum induction is unsuccessful, then a fluid sample taken from the lungs (during a procedure called a bronchoscopy) may be necessary

Sometimes a biopsy will be needed to confirm the diagnosis.

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