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HIV infection is triggered by the human immunodeficiency virus, which stands for HIV. Symptoms of infection may be similar to those of a flu infection, making it difficult to diagnose immunodeficiency. Aids stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, which translates to “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome” and can break years after infection with HIV. The protection against AIDS is relatively simple.

HIV AIDS infection is transmitted primarily through:

  • unprotected sex
  • infected blood products
  • exchanged, contaminated drug cutlery


 The Stages of HIV Infection

AIDS – a disease of the immune system

The HI virus infects the T helper cells, which are responsible for the defence against pathogens, and remains initially for a long time in the cells hidden. Eventually, more and more cells are destroyed and the disease breaks out. The number of T cells in the blood has then dropped from 8,000 to 10,000 cells per millilitre of blood to about 200 per millilitre.

Although AIDS is not curable so far, today it succeeds through a series of modern drugs to delay the onset of the disease and to improve the quality of life of people with AIDS. The extreme adaptability of the HI virus, however, makes the search for drugs very difficult. However, AIDS is now treatable and infected people can often live long with the disease.

Diagnosis of HIV infection and AIDS

The HIV infection can be detected relatively easily and safely by a free blood test (HIV test). Most commonly, a test procedure is used to detect antibodies to the virus. However, antibodies to HIV can only be reliably detected four to twelve weeks after HIV infection.

HIV test: Free at public health offices

If HIV infection is suspected, any doctor can initiate an HIV test. The costs will be borne by the responsible health insurance company. In addition, many health authorities have the opportunity to perform anonymous HIV tests for free and also receive comprehensive advice. The test results – negative as well as positive – may only be communicated personally. Anyone who has actually infected would receive the test result “positive”.

HIV infection and AIDS: causes of immunodeficiency

Fortunately, the HI virus, which can cause HIV infection and consequently the infectious disease AIDS, is very difficult to transfer. Contagion in normal human interaction is therefore almost impossible. Only blood and sexual contacts allow transmission.

Unprotected sex is still the most common way to become infected with AIDS. The use of condoms is, therefore, the best protection against HIV infection. Transmission is possible through vaginal, anal and oral intercourse. The virus is detectable in the sperm and vaginal fluid of those infected with HIV. It can be transmitted through the smallest injuries of the mucous membranes. Since the concentration of virus in the blood and other body fluids of the infected varies, so does the risk of infection by sexual contacts. Even the multiple uses of syringes carry a very high risk of infection.

Symptoms of HIV infection

Children and HIV

Children of HIV-positive women may become infected during breastfeeding, during pregnancy or at birth. Preventative measures can reduce the transfer risk from around 30 percent to less than five percent.

The HI virus belongs to the group of retroviruses. The genome of these viruses consists of RNA (ribonucleic acid, responsible for the transport of genetic information). Only in the infected host cell, the RNA is converted into DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, the carrier of genetic information) and integrated into the host genome – the genetic material of the human cell. The entry into the cells is only possible via certain specific receptor molecules on the surface of the cells. CD4 lymphocytes belonging to the white blood cells are the main target of the viruses. They are also called helper cells and play a key role in the defence against pathogens.

Two HIV types

There are two different HIV subtypes: HIV-1 and HIV-2. They differ, for example, in their “infection power” (virulence). The regional distribution of the two subtypes should also be distinguished. There are no significant differences regarding the type of infection and the therapy.

Symptoms of HIV infection

The signs (symptoms) of HIV infection are non-specific and include fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, fever and rash. This is one of the reasons why the immunodeficiency can be difficult to recognize and many are infected unnoticed with HIV. Around 14,000 Germans live unaware of HIV.

A few days to six weeks after the HIV infection occurs in about 70 percent of infected people to the acute HIV phase (stage A), during which the viruses multiply in the body and thus elicit an immune response. The resulting symptoms, however, are nonspecific and are similar to those of a cold or flu. Also, a fresh HIV infection is often confused with the fever due to the similar symptoms. The symptomatic section after infection usually lasts one week, exceptionally two weeks.

Swollen lymph nodes until rash: HIV symptoms at a glance

If one or more of the following symptom occurs over a longer period of time, you should consult a doctor to rule out or treat a new HIV infection. It is also important, after a risk contact with regard to HIV, to specifically address the attending physician to an Aid test.

These symptoms can trigger HIV infection after a few days to weeks:

  • Lymph node swelling  for example, around the neck, neck and armpits
  • Night sweat (more than a month
  • Fever with partly very high temperature (more than a month)
  • Body ache
  • A dry cough and shortness of breath
  • Appetite and weight loss
  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Inflammation and pain in the throat
  • open spots in the mouth
  • Spotty, severe skin rash  ( HIV rash ) with severe  itching lasting one to a few days

The most common and obvious symptoms of recently acquired HIV infection are fever (in around eight out of ten people) and the characteristic rash that affects about one in two affected people in the acute phase. About 45 percent of newly HIV-infected people have a combination of these two main symptoms.

Also, general fatigue, loss of appetite and body aches are still very common, then followed by the statistics muscle pain, inflammation in the oropharynx and a significant weight loss. There are no differences between the sexes: in men, the same symptoms of HIV generally appear after infection as in a woman.

Medicines prolong symptom-free phases

After the acute HIV infection follows the disease-free interval, which can last for several years. During this phase, the immune system succeeds in keeping the HIV pathogens in check. It usually begins a few months after infection with HIV. With antiretroviral drugs, physicians are now able to extend this phase.

After the often (years) long symptom-free phase, there is a phase with AIDS symptoms. They are also non-specific, so they also occur in many other, usually harmless diseases. Again, there is a likelihood of confusion with other infections caused by viruses such as the flu ( influenza ).

Extremely vulnerable to AIDS

If the immune system is so weakened that it can no longer defend itself against pathogens that are no problem for healthy people, AIDS is spoken of. At this stage, certain forms of (Pneumocystis pneumonia), tuberculosis or infections of the mouth and oesophagus with the yeast Candida albicans are typical. One also speaks of opportunistic infections in these accompanying diseases.

In addition, HIV infection also causes certain cancers caused by viral infection, such as Kaposi’s sarcoma, cervical cancer or lymphoma.

Antiviral drugs in the treatment of HIV and AIDS

HIV infection can not be cured with today’s medicine. Nevertheless, the combination of several antiviral drugs, the concentration of virus in the body for a long time kept low, so it does not come to the full onset of the disease.

For HIV-infected people, however, this means that they consistently have to take several medications every day for years. Although this HIV therapy is very expensive, in Germany it can be used by an HIV-infected person. In many other countries, however, patients do not have this opportunity.

Combination therapy in HIV

For HIV therapy, a combination of at least three different antiviral drugs is usually used. The experts also call this aggressive combination therapy “highly active antiretroviral therapy” (HAART). Since the active ingredients come from three different classes of drugs with different principles of action, the risk of resistant virus strains forming is significantly reduced.

Preventing AIDS with simple measures

Protecting yourself from HIV infection is relatively easy. Caution should be exercised wherever contact with body fluids from potentially infected persons cannot be avoided. For your own safety: Be sure to avoid unprotected sex if you change your partner more often. The focus of all prevention measures is the education of the population – especially the risk groups: drug addicts and homosexuals.

Prevention has today been recognized by many governments and international organizations as an important socio-political task. In addition to government, there are a variety of non-governmental organizations that are involved in this area.

When to talk about HIV, when to talk about AIDS?

Infection with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the cause of AIDS. When the virus weakens the body so much that it is difficult for the immune system to fight infections, it is called AIDS. Then, life-threatening illnesses occur, such as severe infections or tumours that are characteristic of advanced HIV disease.

In medicine, those who have less than 200 helper cells per microliter of blood are at high risk for the diseases that define AIDS. The infection can be inconspicuous for months and pass into AIDS even after years.

Where exactly does the virus harm?

In the body’s helper cells, certain white blood cells. They play an important role in controlling the body’s defences when viruses or bacteria invade the organism – and, fatally, the HI virus targets those cells. It docks to the helper cells, and then multiply in them. The body can no longer sufficiently defend itself against diseases.

Can an HIV infection be cured?

No, the AIDS pathogen is still not curable. But there are isolated cases that give a reason for hope: About 20 cases of a so-called functional healing are known in the infected after HIV therapy, which was discontinued after years, the virus can control well, says the medical officer of the German Aids-Hilfe, Armin Schafberger.


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