Receiving an HIV diagnosis can be confusing, overwhelming and scary. However, learning more about the condition and how to take care of yourself can make it more manageable.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, is a virus that attacks specific immune cells in the body, called T-cells. T-cells help to protect us from disease and fight infection. When these cells are attacked, the immune system is weakened, and a person is more likely to get an illness or infection. If HIV is left untreated, even minor illnesses, like the common cold, may become much more serious.
HIV is spread through contact with certain bodily fluids, including blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk. It’s most commonly spread through unprotected sex or the sharing of drug-injection needles. The only way to know someone has HIV is to get tested. HIV testing is widely accessible in various health care settings. If preferred, home HIV tests are available as well.
Although there is currently no cure, people with HIV can lead long and healthy lives by practicing healthy behaviors and following their treatment plan.
How HIV Affects the Body
1. Brain/Nervous System: HIV can cause injury to the brain and nervous system resulting in memory loss, lowered cognitive function, anxiety, and depression. Nerve damage can also occur, which may cause pain, weakness, and difficulty walking.
2. Mouth/Throat: Thrush, a fungal infection common in those with HIV, causes a white film to build up on the tongue, inner cheeks and throat. Thrush can also cause inflammation of the tongue and throat, making eating painful. Mouth sores are also common for those with HIV
3. Skin: HIV puts a person at a higher risk for skin infections, rashes, and bumpy skin (called “molluscum contagiosum”). Shingles, skin disorders (eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, scabies, skin cancer) and mouth and/or genital sores caused by the herpes virus are also more common.
4. Lungs: The lungs can be greatly affected by HIV due to the increased risk of colds, flu and pneumonia. When the lungs are affected, individuals may have trouble breathing, and may experience chest pain and a chronic cough. Tuberculosis (TB), a bacterial infection of the lungs, is a serious health threat in people with AIDS.
5. Heart: Over time, the heart can become strained due to pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), a type of high blood pressure that affects the arteries supplying blood to the lungs.
6. Immune System: Because HIV attacks the immune system, several changes take place. After first being infected by the virus, the immune system launches an “immune response,” the body’s way of recognizing and defending itself against germs. This can cause a person to suffer from flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, cough, etc.), swollen glands, and fatigue. As HIV continues to damage T-cells and weaken the immune system, opportunistic infections, illnesses that take advantage of a reduced immune system, become more common.
7. Kidneys: Kidney inflammation, caused by HIV-associated nephropathy (HIVAN), can make it more difficult for the kidneys to remove waste from blood stream.
8. GI Tract: Having HIV can make a person much more likely to get a foodborne illness, which can cause diarrhea, stomach pain and vomiting. Even without a foodborne illness, diarrhea is a common side effect of HIV.
9. Adipose (Fat) Tissue: Changes to where your body stores fat, or lipodystrophy, is common in those with HIV, especially those who are taking or have taken older HIV medications. Men tend to lose fat in the arms, legs, face and buttocks. Women, on the other hand, tend to gain fat in the abdomen, breasts and back of the neck or shoulders.
To better understand this disease, your symptoms, and how nutrition is affected, see the table below for more details.
- Can cause fever, headache, muscle aches and joint pain.
- Sore throat and painful mouth sores can occur.
- Diarrhea is a common occurrence with HIV.
- Unwanted weight loss can occur.
- HIV can damage the immune system making it more challenging to fight infections.
How Nutrition is Affected
- When you’re not feeling well, cooking might not be as enjoyable and may cause you to rely on unhealthy convenience food.
- Pain in the throat or mouth can make eating an uncomfortable experience. It can become challenging to get proper nutrition, which can lead to malnutrition or reliance on unhealthy convenience foods.
- Diarrhea, if not treated, can lead to dehydration, unwanted weight loss and malnutrition.
- Unwanted weight loss can cause low energy levels. Low energy may make cooking more challenging, which can lead to low food intake. Over time, this can lead to malnutrition or reliance on unhealthy convenience foods.
- A weakened immune system can make it easier to acquire a foodborne illness. Foodborne illness can lead to diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration and, potentially, malnutrition.
HIV symptoms can vary greatly depending on the stage of the disease. Some people have few or no symptoms, while others may have more severe symptoms. Symptoms often get more severe as the immune system weakens. Later in the disease, many symptoms may come from opportunistic infections, infections that take advantage of a weakened immune system, rather than the HIV virus itself. See below for the most common symptoms based on disease stage:
Download our "Symptom Management Tool Kit", which has been designed to focus on the common symptoms associated with HIV.
- Stage 1: Acute HIV
- Stage 2: Chronic HIV
- Stage 3: AIDS
- Joint pain
- Mouth ulcers
- Muscle aches
- Night sweats
- Skin rashes
- Sore throat
- Swollen glands
Symptoms can vary, but may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Swollen glands
- Weight loss
- Some people may have no symptoms
Symptoms of AIDS
- Cough/breathing problems
- Discolored blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose or eyelids
- Extreme tiredness
- High fevers
- Long-lasting diarrhea
- Memory loss
- Night sweats
- Rapid weight loss
- Swollen glands that won’t go away
- Symptoms from opportunistic infections
Understanding Your Medications
A diagnosis of HIV can seem overwhelming, especially if you or a loved one requires complicated care to help manage this condition. Along with good nutrition, taking your prescribed medication as directed is an important part of a successful treatment plan. The Meijer Specialty Pharmacy care team is here for you every step of the way. Our pharmacists are available 24/7 to answer questions and to help you get the most out of your medication.
HIV is a chronic condition that attack’s the body’s immune system, weakening it. Untreated HIV can lead to AIDS. Although there’s no cure for HIV, taking your prescribed medication, along with diet and exercise changes, can help dramatically slow the condition.