Common Complications of HIV


Dan Brubaker

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Infections disrupt your body’s ability to do what’s needed to keep you healthy. Like a virus on your computer, they prevent you from carrying out certain tasks or using certain systems. In the case of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the target is your immune system—your body’s natural defense. A computer virus acting similarly would target your virus protection software, undermining your computer’s ability to ward off future infections.

Without a strong immune system protecting you, you become vulnerable to health complications ranging from additional infections, to cancers and nerve issues.

Opportunistic Infections

Many infectious germs will take advantage of a weakened immune system. Doctors call the illness that results an opportunistic infection. If you have HIV and contract an opportunistic infection, you will receive a diagnosis of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). An AIDS diagnosis signals that the HIV infection isn’t under control.

The list of opportunistic infections includes illnesses caused by fungi, parasites, viruses and bacteria. Many of these germs don’t pose a major threat to people without HIV. But for people with HIV, these infections are serious. Viruses like herpes affect people with HIV more severely, potentially leading to pneumonia or an esophagus infection. Bacteria like Salmonella—ingested with contaminated food or water—more easily lead to diarrhea, nausea and vomiting in people with HIV.

The most common infection associated with HIV is Tuberculosis (TB). A strong immune system can handle TB infection without issue. And in fact, one-third of the world population has TB in its inactive form. But for people with HIV and weak immune systems, active TB infection is a hundred times more likely to develop. Globally, TB is the leading cause of death among people with HIV.

Hepatitis Infections

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the 1.2 million Americans living with HIV, 25% also have hepatitis C, and 10% have hepatitis B. Opportunistic infections crop up more in HIV patients because their defenses are down. But hepatitis B and C are more common because, like HIV, you can easily contract these viruses by sharing needles and drug paraphernalia with an infected person.

Complications from hepatitis B are more severe for those who also have HIV. And chances of a fatal outcome from hepatitis C triple in people with HIV.

Other Complications

Alongside infection, an HIV diagnosis also puts you at risk of other medical complications. A few forms of cancer are more common among those with HIV. These include cervical and anal cancer, Kaposi sarcoma-often discovered on the skin, as well as lymphomas—cancers of the immune cells. HIV also increases your risk of kidney disease, with black HIV patients being especially prone because of their genetic susceptibility.

Mentally, you may feel confused, depressed and anxious. People with an AIDS diagnosis may develop more severe disorders of the nervous system. You may experience aches, numbness or burning sensations in your extremities because of nerve damage. And HIV-associated dementia, also known as AIDS dementia complex (ADC), can lead to loss of memory and judgment.

How Treatment Helps

Now for the good news. In comparison to the 1980s, opportunistic infections are much less common today. People with HIV are living longer than ever before. In fact, HIV is now considered a chronic disease. What changed? Well, scientists have made incredible breakthroughs in treatment. And, with heightened awareness of HIV, more people are taking the available medications.

HIV treatment involves antiretroviral therapy that reduces the amount of the virus in your body. By taking the necessary oral medications as prescribed you can slow down the debilitating effect HIV has on your immune system.

Treatment Concerns

As with any treatment, you may encounter some side effects. In rare cases, HIV therapy could seriously alter your metabolism, affecting the way your body breaks down sugars and fats. It may also weaken your bones.

Still, the more common concern with HIV therapy is how the medication interacts with other drugs you may need. Treating both TB and HIV at the same time is a challenge. The same can be said for treating people who have HIV and hepatitis B or C. As you get older, medicine you might need for common heart and bone conditions could also complicate treatment of HIV.

By understanding what complications come with an HIV infection, you and your doctor can work together to keep your defenses strong.


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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Aug 16, 2016

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