HIV is a virus that is commonly associated with AIDS illness. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, which is a virus that attacks your immune system. It targets and kills the immune cells known as the CD4 cells. The CD4 cells are a type of white blood cells in the body that help fight against infections. Once HIV infiltrates the body and attacks these cells, it significantly lowers the body’s ability to fight against diseases. As HIV weakens the body’s natural defense system, it has a different impact on the various systems in the body. Let us take a look at the effects of HIV on different body systems.
What is HIV & How Does It Affect The Body?
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the cells of the immune system known as CD4 cells. The CD4 cells are a type of T cells or white blood cells that help protect the body against infections and anomalies in the cells. When HIV targets these CD4 cells, it lowers the body’s ability to fight against diseases, thus increasing the risk of catching infections and serious diseases like cancer.
When a person first contracts HIV, the virus does not immediately start to affect their health. In fact, the virus affects the body in various stages. But, if it is left untreated, then HIV is more likely to cause AIDS.(1)
At the same time, though, it is possible that a person can continue to be a carrier of HIV but not experience any symptom for a long time. HIV is a lifelong infection, but it is Possible to manage the disease by following a timely treatment plan.(2)
When you leave HIV untreated, then even a minor infection such as the common cold has the potential to become severe because the body’s ability to fight against infections has been reduced.
HIV does not only attack the CD4 cells. It also uses the CD4 cells to multiply and make more copies of itself. HIV uses its own multiplication machinery to destroy the CD4 cells and create new copies of HIV. This causes the CD4 cells to ultimately burst.
When HIV has succeeded in destroying a certain number of CD4 cells, and the CD4 count drops below 200 in the body, a person is said to progress to the stage of having AIDs.(3)
How quickly the attack by HIV progresses and affects the body depends on various factors, including your overall health, your age, and at which point you get diagnosed. The timing of when you start your treatment is also known to make a big difference.
Most of the effects on the body are due to the continuing failure of the immune system because of HIV. At the same time, the more your immune system deteriorates, the faster AIDS is progressing. Many of the effects described below can be prevented with early antiretroviral treatment. Antiretroviral treatments can help preserve your immune system.
Let us take a closer look at the specific effects HIV has on the body systems.
First Signs of HIV
Once you have contracted HIV, the first symptoms of an HIV infection typically become visible after two to six weeks. The exact time varies from person to person.(4) The early signs appear to be flu-like symptoms. This is known as seroconversion illness, and seroconversion refers to the stage where an infected person’s body begins to produce antibodies to HIV. This indicates that their immune system has started fighting against the infection.(5)
The flu-like symptoms that are visible during the seroconversion stage include:
- Skin rash
- Swollen glands
- Muscle or joint pain
- Sore throat
- Night sweats
- Genital or mouth ulcers
These first symptoms tend to last for around one to two weeks. After this, the seroconversion period is said to be over, and the patient may or may not experience any other HIV symptoms for many years.
People tend to generally feel good at this stage, but it is still important to remember that the virus is still present inside the body, and it is active. It will continue to multiply and infect new immune cells. At the same time, HIV will damage the immune system, meaning that in the time to come, your body will be unable to protect itself from diseases.
Effects of HIV on Different Body Systems
Effect of HIV on the Immune System
The first impact of HIV infection is felt on your immune system. The role of the immune system is to protect your body and prevent it against many diseases and infections. White blood cells are responsible for defending the body against bacteria, viruses, and other harmful invaders that can cause diseases and make you sick.
During the early stage of HIV infection, your symptoms are going to be so mild that they are easily dismissed. After a couple of months, though, you are likely to experience the flu-like symptoms mentioned above. The seroconversion stage is also referred to as the acute infection stage of HIV. While you are not going to experience any serious symptoms, you will still have large amounts of virus present in your bloodstream by the end of this stage as the virus multiplies rapidly.(6)
As the HIV infection progresses to AIDS, it affects your immune system further, and your body becomes susceptible to catching various infections.
If you have been diagnosed as being HIV-positive by this stage, then your doctor will keep track of the health of your immune system by performing a CD4 count. A healthy CD4 count falls between 500 and 1,500.(7) A low CD4 count means that HIV has already damaged your immune system and is likely making you sick.
If the HIV infection is left untreated, then the CD4 count will continue to fall over time. Once the CD4 count falls below 200, a person’s immune system is said to be highly damaged, and they are likely to be already experiencing the definitive symptoms of AIDS.
Without proper treatment, an HIV-positive person will go on to develop AIDS because their immune system is no longer able to fight against the infection. At this stage, even the most minor infection can become life-threatening.
Effect of HIV on Cardiovascular and Respiratory Systems
HIV increases your risk of pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH).(8) Pulmonary arterial hypertension is a type of high blood pressure in the blood vessels that are responsible for supplying blood to the lungs. Over a period of time, pulmonary arterial hypertension puts a lot of strain on the heart, increasing your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Being infected by HIV also increases your risk of catching a common cold, influenza (flu), and pneumonia. Without undergoing treatment for HIV, even a simple cold can become life-threatening. Furthermore, if you have not received any preventive therapy for HIV and straightaway moved on to advanced HIV/AIDS treatment, it puts you at a considerable risk of developing complications such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and a condition known as pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). This disease can cause fever, a persistent cough, and you will have trouble breathing.(9)
HIV also increases the risk of developing lung cancer. Lung cancer is caused because the lungs have already been weakened by the numerous respiratory diseases in an HIV-positive person. According to the National AIDS Manual, people with HIV are more likely to develop lung cancer than people without HIV.(10)
If you are HIV-positive and have reached the stage where you already have a low T-cell count (you have become immunocompromised), then you are more likely to have tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is one of the biggest causes of death in people with AIDS.(11) Tuberculosis is caused by airborne bacteria that attacks the lungs. Symptoms of tuberculosis include:
- Coughing up blood or phlegm
- Persistent cough
- Constant feeling of being tired
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Night sweats
- Chest pain
Effect of HIV on the Digestive System
HIV damages the immune system, making the body prone to infections. These infections can also affect your digestive system. If you develop problems with the digestive system, it leads to a decrease in your appetite, leading to weight loss. Weight loss is another common symptom of HIV infection.
One of the common infections that affect digestion and is related to HIV is oral thrush. Also known as candidiasis, this is a fungal infection that causes thick white patches to develop on the tongue and other parts of the mouth and throat.(12) This leads to a sore throat and inflammation in the esophagus, which makes it difficult to have food or swallow.
Another common viral infection that affects the mouth and thus your digestion is oral hairy leukoplakia.(13) This infection causes white lesions on the tongue. It is usually triggered by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
HIV also increases the chances of getting infected by salmonella. Salmonella is transmitted through contaminated water and food, and it causes symptoms like vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. While anyone can contract salmonella, but if you are HIV-positive, then you are at a high risk of developing severe complications from this digestive infection.(14)
Another effect HIV has on the digestive system is the development of HIV-associated nephropathy or HIVAN. This condition develops when the kidney’s filtration system gets disrupted. The filters become inflamed, making it difficult for the kidneys to remove toxic waste from the bloodstream.(15)
Effect of HIV on the Central Nervous System
HIV does not directly infect the nerve cells, but it can infect the cells in the nervous system that support and surround the nerves in the brain and other parts of the body. The exact link between neurologic damage caused by HIV is not clearly understood, but it is believed that when the supporting cells become infected, it leads to nerve injury. As the HIV infection advances and remains untreated, it can damage the nerves, a condition known as neuropathy. If small holes develop in the protective covering of the peripheral nerve fibers, then it can lead to weakness, pain, and difficulty in walking.
HIV and AIDS can also cause HIV-associated dementia or AIDS dementia complex. These are two serious conditions that can severely affect a person’s cognitive functioning.(16)
In cases with very advanced HIV infection or advanced AIDS, patients may experience frank psychosis and hallucinations and also experience headaches, vision problems, and balance issues.
While there are many other effects on the body, it is necessary to keep in mind that symptoms vary from person to person and also depend on many factors.
Advancements in HIV treatment have made it possible for people to live a healthier life in spite of being infected by HIV. However, it is essential to be diagnosed at an early stage of HIV infection so that complications can be prevented. Once you are diagnosed, then getting regular testing done and taking good care of yourself by following a healthy lifestyle is necessary. Sticking to the treatment plan will also help reduce the risk of transmission and also help prevent serious complications from minor infections.
Early treatment of HIV infection helps prevent or slow down the progression of the disease as well. Remember that treatment of HIV is critical to preventing the disease from progressing on to becoming AIDS.
- Weiss, R.A., 1993. How does HIV cause AIDS?. Science, 260(5112), pp.1273-1279.
- Ferrando, S.J. and Wapenyi, K., 2002. Psychopharmacological treatment of patients with HIV and AIDS. Psychiatric Quarterly, 73(1), pp.33-49.
- Lee, C., Kernoff, P.A., Phillips, A., Elford, J., Janossy, G., Timms, A. and Bofill, M., 1991. Serial CD4 lymphocyte counts and development of AIDS. The Lancet, 337(8738), pp.389-392.
- nhs.uk. (2020). HIV and AIDS – Symptoms. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/symptoms/ [Accessed 11 Feb. 2020].
- Boyle, M.J., Tindall, B., Cooper, D.A. and McMurchie, M., 1993. 6. HIV seroconversion illness. Medical journal of Australia, 158(1), pp.42-44.
- Cohen, M.S., Shaw, G.M., McMichael, A.J. and Haynes, B.F., 2011. Acute HIV-1 infection. New England Journal of Medicine, 364(20), pp.1943-1954.
- Zuber, J.P., Calmy, A., Evison, J.M., Hasse, B., Schiffer, V., Wagels, T., Nuesch, R., Magenta, L., Ledergerber, B., Jenni, R. and Speich, R., 2004. Pulmonary arterial hypertension related to HIV infection: improved hemodynamics and survival associated with antiretroviral therapy. Clinical infectious diseases, 38(8), pp.1178-1185.
- AIDSinfo. (2020). Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) News. [online] Available at: https://aidsinfo.nih.gov/news/109/pneumocystis-carinii-pneumonia–pcp- [Accessed 11 Feb. 2020].
- aidsmap.com. (2020). Lung cancer and HIV. [online] Available at: https://www.aidsmap.com/about-hiv/lung-cancer-and-hiv [Accessed 11 Feb. 2020].
- Kwan, C.K. and Ernst, J.D., 2011. HIV and tuberculosis: a deadly human syndemic. Clinical microbiology reviews, 24(2), pp.351-376.
- Warrier, S.A. and Sathasivasubramanian, S., 2015. Human immunodeficiency virus induced oral candidiasis. Journal of pharmacy & bioallied sciences, 7(Suppl 2), p.S812.
- Anon, (2020). Oral Hairy Leukoplakia. [online] Available at: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/oral-hairy-leukoplakia [Accessed 11 Feb. 2020].
- AIDSinfo. (2020). Salmonella Definition. [online] Available at: https://aidsinfo.nih.gov/understanding-hiv-aids/glossary/3226/salmonella [Accessed 11 Feb. 2020].
- Emedicine.medscape.com. (2020). HIV-Associated Nephropathy and Other HIV-Related Renal Disorders: Practice Essentials, Pathophysiology, Epidemiology. [online] Available at: https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/246031-overview [Accessed 11 Feb. 2020].
- Anon, (2020). HIV and Dementia. [online] Available at: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/hiv-and-aids/hiv-and-dementia [Accessed 11 Feb. 2020].
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