About AIDS

Published: 19th March, 2013 in: Health Advice Aids HIV Sexual Health Sexually Transmitted Diseases

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodefiency Syndrome. A person is considered to have AIDS when their immune system is so damaged by HIV that it can no longer fight off a range of disease with which it would normally cope. These diseases are known as ‘opportunistic diseases’ and tumours because they are caused by organisms which ‘take the opportunity’ of a damaged immune system to cause disease.

AIDS is a result of HIV infection which remains untreated for a long period, but with timely diagnosis and effective medication AIDS is no longer an inevitable result of being infected with HIV. Only a small proportion of people with HIV in the UK are now diagnosed with AIDS.

Are HIV and AIDS the same thing?

HIV and AIDS are not the same thing. HIV is a virus. AIDS is a clinical description of one or more diseases which can affect someone who has had their immune system seriously compromised by HIV. People with HIV can successfully avoid getting AIDS by being diagnosed in time and taking HIV treatment.

How do you know if you have AIDS?

It is not possible to test for AIDS but you can take a test to see if you are HIV positive.

Doctors have agreed a list of opportunistic diseases which are ‘AIDS-defining’ – in other words, if someone with HIV has one or more of the listed opportunistic diseases they are considered to have AIDS.

Examples of AIDS-defining illnesses include:

Cryptococcus outside the lungs Fungus that primarily affected the brain Symptoms are: headaches, nausea, fever,fatigue, altered mental status and irritability. It can also cause seizures, coughing, sweats and difficulty in breathing.

Cryptosporidiosos with diarrhoea lasting more than one month Parasite that can cause diarrhoea Symptoms are: chronic diarrhoea with frequent watery stools, stomach cramp, nausea, fatigue, weight loss, appetite loss, vomiting, dehydration and electrolyte imbalance (especially sodium and potassium)

Cytomegalovirus (CMV) disease outside the liver, spleen or lymph nodes A virus that can affect many sites in the body Symptoms might include: (CMV related) retinitis (in eye, retina): blurry vision or loss of central vision that can lead to blindness. Colitis (colon): fevers, diarrhoea and stomach pain. Oesophagitis (throat): ulcerations, pain and difficulty in swallowing. Pneumonitis (lungs): pneumonia-like symptoms. Encephalitis (brain): confusion, fever and tiredness.

Pneumocystsis pneumonia (PCP) Parasite that infects the lungs Symptoms are: usually fever, cough and difficulty in breathing, occasionally weight loss, night sweats and fatigue

How do you avoid getting AIDS?

AIDS is caused by infection with HIV so avoiding HIV transmission is extremely important. HIV is avoided if you use condoms for penetrative sex and use clean injecting equipment if you are an injecting drug user.

Even if you have been infected with HIV, you can avoid getting AIDS if you are diagnosed in time to benefit from the very effective drug treatments which are now available. If you think you may have been at risk of HIV infection it is important to consider having an HIV test.

You can have HIV for many years without showing a sign of any AIDS-related illness so you must not wait to be ill before going for an HIV test.

How do you become infected with HIV?

HIV can be passed on through infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids or breast milk. The most common ways HIV is passed on in the UK are:

  • Sex without a condom with someone already infected with HIV
  • Sharing infected needles syringes or other injecting equipment
  • From an HIV positive mother to her child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding. However, there are steps mothers can take to reduce very significantly the possibility of their unborn or weaning child contracting HIV.

Oral sex carries a much lower risk than penetrative sex, but HIV can still be passed on through cuts, gum problems or ulcers in the mouth if they come into contact with infected body fluids. HIV cannot be passed on through:

  • Kissing or touching
  • Spitting
  • Coughing or sneezing
  • Toilet seats
  • Swimming pools or
  • Shared facilities or utensils.