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What to Expect With AIDS

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on April 28, 2021

AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV. It happens when your immune system is very damaged from the virus. Your HIV could become AIDS if you’re not getting HIV treatment.

HIV medication stops the disease from progressing. Because of this, most people with HIV in the United States do not get AIDS.

Untreated HIV typically becomes AIDS in about 8 to 10 years.

Diagnosis

CD4 cells are white blood cells that help your body fight disease. The fewer you have, the weaker your immune system. HIV kills these cells.

If you have HIV, your doctor will test your blood regularly to check your CD4 count. Your diagnosis will be AIDS once:

  • Your CD4 cell count is below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (200 cells/mm3).
  • Or if you develop an illness called an opportunistic infection.

Opportunistic Infections

These are illnesses that people with HIV get more often because of their damaged immune systems. These diseases wouldn’t usually make a healthy person sick.

Some common opportunistic infections include:

If you have an opportunistic infection, you could have symptoms including:

Opportunistic infections are less common today because modern HIV treatment is so effective. Usually, people with HIV who get opportunistic infections didn’t know they had HIV, weren’t on medication, or got treatment that wasn’t working.

The best way to avoid opportunistic infections is to take your HIV medication. It will protect your immune system. If you have an opportunistic infection, your doctor will help you get better.

You can also:

  • Protect yourself against other STDs.
  • Don’t share needles or other drug equipment.
  • Drink clean water. Don’t drink untreated water from lakes or rivers. Drink bottled or filtered water when you’re in foreign countries.
  • Avoid foods that could make you sick, like undercooked eggs, raw milk, and unpasteurized fruit juice.
  • Stay away from risky germs, including those in animal skin, feces, or saliva.
  • Ask your doctor about vaccines and medicines to prevent some illnesses.

After an AIDS Diagnosis

There is no way to cure HIV or AIDS, but you can get your HIV under control with treatment. HIV medication is still extremely helpful to people with AIDS.

This medication is called antiretroviral therapy (ART). It involves taking a combination of medicines every day.

These medicines control how much of the virus is in your body and help slow HIV’s growth. Take them exactly as your doctor instructs.

Some people live normal lives for many years after being diagnosed with AIDS. But without medication, someone with AIDS will usually survive about 3 years. If you have a dangerous opportunistic illness and don’t get treatment, your life expectancy is about a year.

Treatment

Medication is vital for controlling your HIV, but the program can be complicated and challenging. Take your medicine consistently so it works well and call your doctor if you’re having side effects. Your medical team can also help come up with solutions if you’re having a hard time following your regimen.

Your doctor will regularly check how much HIV is in your blood, called your viral load. If you have AIDS, you could have a high viral load and be very infectious.

If you drop below a certain CD4 count, you will need to take medicines to help prevent opportunistic infections as part of your treatment.

You should have the test every 4-6 months and before and after you start a new medicine. Medication can make your viral load very low -- so low that a test can’t detect it. When your viral load is undetectable, you have virtually no risk of transmitting HIV to a HIV-negative partner through sex.

Keep up with your follow-up appointments so your doctor can track how you’re responding to treatment.

Living With AIDS

In addition to following your drug regimen, you can do a lot to take care of yourself every day.

  • Eat well. Good nutrition will help you absorb your treatment and fight common infections.
  • Stop smoking. People with HIV who smoke are more likely to respond poorly to treatment.
  • Exercise. It helps your immune system and your mental health. You can do the same kinds of exercise as people without HIV.
  • Manage your mental health. Watch for signs of depression. Your doctor can recommend mental health professionals and support groups. Feeling good will make it easier to stick to your treatment plan.
  • Address alcohol and drug use. It could stop you from taking your medication correctly. Some HIV medications can interact with drugs and alcohol, so be honest with your doctor. Heavy drinking and recreational drugs can also hurt your immune system.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC : “AIDS and Opportunistic Infections,” “HIV Treatment,” “Healthy Living with HIV.”

HIV.gov: “What Are HIV and AIDS?” “How Does Smoking Affect People with HIV?”

Mayo Clinic: “HIV/AIDS.”

Stanford Health Care: “HIV/AIDS Diagnosis,” “Treatment for HIV/AIDS.”

Avert: “Symptoms and Stages of HIV Infection,” “Taking Care of Yourself When Living with HIV.”

Cedars-Sinai: “AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).”

National Institutes of Health Office of AIDS Research: “HIV/AIDS: The Basics.”

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