When you have HIV or AIDS, you’re more likely to get things called opportunistic infections. They're called that because they take advantage of weakened immune systems. HIV and AIDS damage your immune system. So it’s not strong enough to ward off bacteria, parasites, or viruses.
Better HIV medications have made these things less likely, but if you're not taking these meds, or if your condition has advanced to AIDS, you have a greater chance of getting those infections.
There are steps you can take to keep those problems away. Here’s what you need to know.
Types of Opportunistic Infections
Some conditions happen more often than others. The most common opportunistic infections in people with HIV or AIDS include:
Candida. A fungus causes this infection. It can leave a thick, white coating on your mouth, tongue, esophagus, or vagina. If you have a weakened immune system, it can show up in your throat, then spread to your esophagus. That can make it hard to swallow. You might have chest pain, too. Also called esophageal candidiasis, it can move to your lungs and kidneys. Once it does that, candida can be fatal.
Cytomegalovirus. It’s a virus that spreads through saliva, blood, urine, semen, and breast milk. If you have it and you’re healthy, it doesn’t cause problems. But a weak immune system can allow it to affect your eyes, digestive tract, lungs, or other organs.
Herpes simplex virus. This can bring painful sores on your mouth, as well as ulcers around your genitals or anus. If you have HIV and your sores last for more than a month (your doctor may say they become chronic), that could be a sign that your HIV has become AIDS.
Mycobacterium avium complex. This is a serious infection caused by bacteria related to the kind that causes tuberculosis. They can live in dirt, dust, and many other things. If your immune system is weak, the infection can affect your lungs and digestive system. It can also spread throughout your body and be life-threatening.
Pneumocystis pneumonia. An infection caused by a fungus, this spreads through the lungs. Healthy people can have this fungus in their lungs and feel nothing. People with weaker immune systems who have it can have symptoms like:
Tuberculosis. This bacterial infection spreads in the air when a person sneezes, coughs, or speaks. It affects the lungs, but it can also infect other parts of your body, like the larynx, lymph nodes, brain, kidneys, or bones.
Kaposi sarcoma. A virus causes this type of cancer. It makes your capillaries, or small blood vessels, grow in odd ways. The condition looks like firm pink or purple spots on your skin. They may be flat or stick out a little. If it affects organs like your lungs, lymph nodes, or intestines, it can be life-threatening.
Encephalopathy. Doctors aren't sure how this brain disorder happens. They do know that an infection causes it. Some believe that for people with HIV, it has something to do with the brain inflammation caused by the virus.
How to Prevent Them
There are steps you can take to lower your chances of getting an opportunistic infection. It’s important to wash your hands often. Most importantly, you should also:
Take your HIV medication every day. This keeps your HIV in check. That helps keep your immune system as strong as possible.
Get vaccinated. Ask your doctor which ones you need.
Stay away from raw or undercooked foods. They can carry germs that can cause opportunistic infections. For example, don’t eat:
- Raw or undercooked poultry, meat, or shellfish
- Unpasteurized dairy products
- Raw or undercooked eggs
- Unpasteurized fruit juice
- Raw seed sprouts like alfalfa or mung bean sprouts
Strength training can help you regain some of the muscle that HIV and AIDS can take away from you. You can use your own body weight to do things like push-ups or pull-ups. You can also use weights and even things around your house like milk jugs filled with water.
Make sure to talk with your doctor before you start. They can tell you which exercises might be best for you.
Watch your water. Don’t drink untreated water from lakes or streams. Tap water may not be safe in some countries. Drink bottled or filtered water instead.
Stay away from sick people. Thanks to your weakened immune system, you’re more likely to catch whatever people around you might have.
Be careful around animals. They can spread infections. That’s why it’s important to make sure they have all their shots. Wash your hands after touching any animal. And wear disposable gloves if you need to pick up pet poop.
What to Do if You Think You Have One
Call your doctor right away if you have symptoms of an infection, like ongoing diarrhea or weakness, or if you don't feel as good as you normally do. They can help you keep things from getting worse.