Health Guide

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome

What is it?

"HIV" stands for human immunodeficiency (ih-mew-no-d-FISH-in-c) virus. Once you are infected with this virus, you will probably be infected for life. "AIDS" stands for acquired immune deficiency (d-FISH-in-c) syndrome (SIN-drome). To get AIDS, you must be infected with HIV and have a weakened immune system. Scientists are making progress with treatments for HIV so people with AIDS are living longer and healthier lives.


Your immune system protects your body from infection. The HIV virus weakens part of your immune system by damaging the helper T-cells (also called CD4+ cells), a type of white blood cell (WBC). T-cells help your body fight certain kinds of infections. With AIDS, the number of T-cells is low and cannot help fight these infections. The HIV virus can also cause certain types of cancers. It is these infections and cancers that actually make people with HIV or AIDS sick.

Signs and Symptoms:

There are 2 ways that doctors can diagnose AIDS. A positive HIV test and either a T-cell count less than 200 or an infection that only affects people with weakened immunity. A healthy adult's T-cell count should be more than 500. You may have HIV in your body for some time and not know it. You may have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Changes in your ability to think.
  • Changes in your coordination (ko-or-di-NA-shun). Coordination is the way your muscles work together.
  • Diarrhea (loose stools).
  • Fever.
  • Joint pain.
  • Mouth, throat, vagina, or rectal (rear end) sores.
  • Night sweats.
  • Skin rashes.
  • Swollen glands in your neck, jaw, armpit, or groin (between your legs).
  • Weight loss.

With AIDS, your body has trouble fighting off germs. You can get infected with germs that do not bother most people, often in the lungs or brain. You may also get some rare kinds of pneumonia. One of these is pneumocystis (new-mo-SIS-tis) carinii (KUH-rih-nee-i) pneumonia (new-MOAN-yuh). This is also called PCP and is a lung infection. You may also get Kaposi's (kuh-PO-zees) sarcoma (KS), a form of cancer.

How is HIV spread from person to person? The following are ways that HIV can be spread:

  • Through contact with blood and certain body fluids (sperm, vaginal fluids, and breast milk).
  • Having sex (especially if not using a latex condom) with someone who has HIV.
  • Injecting drugs with used equipment.
  • An HIV infected mother may spread the virus to her baby before or during birth.
  • HIV may be spread from a mother to her baby through breast feeding.
  • Before 1985 in the United States, people could be infected by HIV infected blood and blood products. Since 1985, blood is tested before being used.

How is HIV not spread? There are many false beliefs about how HIV may be spread from person to person. Following are the ways HIV is not spread:

  • Food or sharing plates, cups, or silverware.
  • Insect bites, such as mosquitoes.
  • Sneezing or coughing.
  • Swimming pools or other public places.
  • Toilet seats, clothes, or sheets.
  • Touching the skin of a person who has HIV.

What are the infections and cancers I could get because I have AIDS?

  • Candida (KAN-di-dah): This is a fungal infection that may occur in the mouth. It is also called "thrush." It looks like a white coating over your tongue and in your mouth.
  • Cytomegalovirus (si-to-MEG-uh-lo-vi-rus): This is also called "CMV." It is a virus (germ) that may cause you to feel tired or to have a fever. You may also have large lymph (limf) nodes and pain in your muscles or throat. You could get a liver (hepatitis), lung (pneumonia), eye, or bowel infection from CMV. Long term problems may be diarrhea or blindness.
  • Kaposi's (kuh-PO-zees) sarcoma (sar-KO-muh): This is a common cancer in AIDS patients. It is also called "KS." This cancer may first show up on the legs or mouth as purplish-red sores. These sores may slowly spread. KS may also be in lymph nodes and other places inside your body. You may have pain if you have KS in the mouth. A tissue biopsy (BI-op-see) is a test done to see if you have KS.
  • Lymphoma (lim-FO-muh): This is a type of cancer that people who have AIDS may get. It may be found in the gastrointestinal (gas-tro-in-TES-tih-null) tract (food tract), brain, or spinal cord. Lymphoma may also be found in the bone marrow, liver, or lungs. The signs of lymphoma depend on the body organ that is affected.
  • Mycobacterium (mi-ko-bak-TEER-e-um) avium complex: This is a common AIDS infection. It is also called "MAC." Signs may include a long term cough, coughing or spitting up blood, and abdominal (belly) pain. You may have diarrhea, fever, weight loss, night sweats, or feel tired.
  • Pneumocystis (new-mo-SIS-tis) carinii (kuh-RIN-e-i) pneumonia (new-MOAN-yuh): This is also called "PCP." It is a lung infection, but may also infect other places in your body. You may have a fever, breathing problems, or feel tired.
  • Toxoplasmosis (tox-o-plaz-MO-sis): This is an infection of the brain. It may cause you to feel tired or have headaches or seizures (convulsions). You may also have a high temperature and confusion. You may be numb or weak in one part of your body.
  • Tuberculosis (too-ber-q-LO-sis): This is an infection that any person can get, but spreads faster in people with AIDS. It is also called "TB." This infection causes a long term cough that may include coughing or spitting up blood. You may have fever, weight loss, and night sweats. Other signs depend on the site of the infection.
  • People with AIDS can get all of the same infections that a person without AIDS may get. These infections become more severe and spread faster in people with HIV or AIDS.

Wellness Recommendations:

  • The only way to prevent the spread of the virus which causes AIDS is through responsible sex (either no sex or "safe sex" by using latex condoms) and not sharing needles.
  • Follow a healthy lifestyle to help your immune system. This may help prevent illnesses common with people who have AIDS. Eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, get enough rest, and try to prevent infection. If you smoke, you should quit. You should not drink alcohol or use "street" (illegal) drugs.

Medical Care:

  • See your caregiver often. Your caregiver will watch your T-cell blood count for changes. There are many medicines and treatments used to care for the infections and cancers of AIDS. You may need to be put in the hospital for tests and treatment.
  • Antiviral medicines slow down the HIV infection.
  • Prophylactic medicines try to keep you from getting certain infections. They also try to keep you healthy.
  • Other medicines may be given to fight the infections and cancers that you may get from AIDS.

Dietary Measures:

  • Because patients with AIDS can get infections more easily than others, it is important to drink purified water and eat well-cooked food.
  • Eat a healthy diet and enough food to keep your weight from decreasing. Germs may be on certain foods. These foods may cause a stomach or bowel infection. Avoid eating raw or undercooked eggs, poultry, meat, seafood, and cold cuts. Do not eat soft cheeses or unpasteurized dairy products or juices. Prepare foods safely. Do not let cooked food touch uncooked food or cutting boards or dishes used for uncooked food. Wash all fruits and vegetables well before eating them.

Herbs and Supplements:

Before taking any herbs or supplements, ask your caregiver if it is OK. Talk to your caregiver about how much you should take. If you are using this medicine without instructions from your caregiver, follow the directions on the label. Do not take more medicine or take it more often than the directions tell you to. The herbs and supplements listed may or may not help treat your condition.


  • Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) has been used for many years, but has not been studied in people who have AIDS.
  • Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) has been used for many years, but has not been studied in people who have AIDS.
  • Garlic (Allium sativum) has been used for many years, but has not been studied in people who have AIDS.
  • Maitake mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) have been used for many years, but have not been studied in people who have AIDS.


  • Alpha Lipoic Acid has been used, but has not been studied in people who have AIDS.
  • Antioxidants have been used, but have not been studied in people who have AIDS.
  • Arginine has been used, but has not been studied in people who have AIDS.
  • B Vitamins (vitamin B6-pyridoxine, vitamin B1-thiamine, vitamin B2-riboflavin, and vitamin B3-niacin) is helpful for people with AIDS and has been studied in people. May increase how long a patient with AIDS lives.
  • Beta Glucans , which come from mushrooms, have been used, but have not been studied in people who have AIDS.
  • Carnitine has been used, but has not been studied in people who have AIDS.
  • Coenzyme Q 10 has been used, but has not been studied in people who have AIDS.
  • DHEA has been used, but has not been studied in people who have AIDS.
  • Selenium has been used, but has not been studied in people who have AIDS.

Complementary Therapies:

  • TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) has been used a lot and may help AIDS patients.
  • Biofeedback may help AIDS patients by decreasing stress and improving the immune system.

Other ways of treating your symptoms:

Other ways to treat your symptoms are available to you.

Talk to your caregiver if:

  • You would like medicine to treat AIDS.
  • Your symptoms have not gone away or improved by these self-help measures.
  • You have vision (eye) problems.
  • You are feeling weak.
  • You are feeling depressed.
  • You have questions about what you have read in this document.


  • You cannot think clearly.
  • You have a bad headache or stiff neck.
  • You have balance, walking, or speech problems.
  • You are short of breath.
  • You have chest pain.
  • You are unable to drink liquids.

Care Agreement:

You have the right to help plan your care. To help with this plan, you must learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. You can then discuss treatment options with your caregivers. Work with them to decide what care may be used to treat you. You always have the right to refuse treatment.


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Last Updated: 7/4/2018
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