HIV Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

By Wendy Innes. May 7th 2016

Human Immunodeficiency Virus, more commonly known as HIV, is a very serious virus that leads to the deterioration of the body’s immune system. It is primarily associated with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, better known as AIDS, and is a fatal viral infection.

What Is It?

HIV uses the genetic material from the body’s own CD4 cells, also called T-cells, to replicate itself. CD4 cells play an important role in the body’s immune system, where they are responsible for detecting foreign “invaders” like bacteria and viruses. When HIV uses the genetic material from the CD4 cell, it damages the cell and keeps it from being able to do what it’s supposed to in the immune system. Over time, the immune system becomes so weak that the body can’t fight off even the mildest of infections. So in essence, HIV doesn’t make a person sick; it makes it much easier for other illnesses to infect the body.

Causes And Risk Factors

HIV can be spread by:

  • Any unprotected sex, including vaginal, anal and oral sex. Some types of sex are riskier than others, but all unprotected sex can spread the disease.
  • The sharing of infected needles. This is most common in the use of illicit drugs, but in underdeveloped countries, this could occur in routine medical care.
  • The transfusion of infected blood products. This is particularly dangerous for hemophiliac patients who require frequent transfusions to treat their condition.
  • During childbirth. HIV can be spread from mother to child during pregnancy or birth if the mother is infected.

Though it is far less likely, HIV can also be spread by:

  • Ingesting pre-chewed food from someone who is infected. This is a common practice in some underdeveloped countries and is generally done to feed small children or the elderly.
  • Being bitten by someone or biting someone who is infected. The skin of the infected person would have to be broken by the bite.
  • Kissing, though this is highly unlikely. It is possible to spread HIV by “French” or deep, open mouth kissing someone who is infected if there is bleeding in the mouth, such as from the gums. A large quantity of blood is not necessary for infection to occur. Saliva is not known for spreading the disease.
  • Body modification procedures. Tattooing or body piercing carries a very small risk of transmitting HIV if unsanitary tools are used. This is more of a risk in the case of “prison” tattoos, which are not done in a sanitary environment than in professional shops in which materials are properly sanitized after each use.

Contrary to popular belief HIV cannot be spread by:

  • Air
  • Water
  • Insect bites
  • Saliva
  • Sweat
  • Tears
  • Casual contact such as shaking hands or hugging


Some people have no symptoms at all when they become infected with HIV. Others will experience the following symptoms:

  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Frequent vaginal yeast infection
  • Headache
  • Mouth sores, including thrush
  • Stiff or aching muscles
  • Rashes, including seborrheic dermatitis
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen lymph glands


The treatment for HIV involves a number of different drugs depending upon the individual person’s infection. Because the virus needs an enzyme called protease in order to replicate, treatment typically will involve protease inhibitors as well as anti-viral drugs. This combination of medications is called highly active anti-retroviral treatment, or HAART for short.

In the 1990’s Dr. David Ho, a leading AIDS researcher, discovered that by aggressively treating an HIV infection early, within the first three months of infection, that the infection was reduced to immeasurable levels in the body. Because of this, those who have been recently infected will likely be started on an aggressive treatment plan.

HIV drugs do have some side effects, which includes diabetes and high cholesterol. HIV patients often work with a nutritionist to ensure that they are eating right to counteract the side effects from drug treatment. They will also require additional medical tests periodically to ensure that cholesterol levels aren’t too high and that blood sugar remains in a health range. Liver toxicity is also a side effect so those with HIV should have their liver function tested periodically. Hepatitis is also a concern for those with HIV because protease inhibitors can make hepatitis worse.


Prognosis for those with HIV largely depends upon the medical care that they receive and how early the virus is diagnosed. In the high profile case of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, treatment was extremely aggressive, with Johnson taking large amounts of medication several times a day immediately after diagnosis. 20 years later, he is the picture of health, and his medications have been reduced.

If someone doesn’t get treatment early, then the virus will progress and weaken the immune system making the outlook less positive. However, treatment can still be effective no matter when the virus is diagnosed.

HIV is a chronic condition that cannot be cured, but it can be managed. Without treatment, nearly every HIV patient will go on to develop AIDS. However, there is a very small group of people who never develop AIDS. These patients are termed long term non-progressers.


The best way to prevent the spread of HIV is to practice safe sex. Consistent and correct condom use can prevent the spread of the disease. In addition, people can abstain from sex altogether.

Those who use needles for illicit drug use need to make every attempt to stop. In addition to the havoc that illicit drugs wreak on the body, sharing of dirty needles can lead to a number of life threatening infections, including HIV.

If a woman with HIV becomes pregnant, she needs to inform her obstetrician immediately. Steps can be taken to reduce the chance of spreading the disease from mother to child.

Thanks to advances in medicine, HIV is not the immediate death sentence that it once was. However, the best medicine is still to prevent the spread of the disease.


  • Medline Plus
  • CDC
  • Time

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