AIDS

  • Alternative Names

    Acquired immune deficiency syndrome


    Treatment

    There is no cure for AIDS at this time. However, a variety of treatments are available that can help keep symptoms at bay and improve the quality of life for those who have already developed symptoms.

    Antiretroviral therapy suppresses the replication of the HIV virus in the body. A combination of several antiretroviral drugs, called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), has been very effective in reducing the number of HIV particles in the bloodstream. This is measured by the viral load (how much free virus is found in the blood). Preventing the virus from replicating can improve T-cell counts and help the immune system recover from the HIV infection.

    HAART is not a cure for HIV, but it has been very effective for the past 12 years. People on HAART with suppressed levels of HIV can still transmit the virus to others through sex or by sharing needles. There is good evidence that if the levels of HIV remain suppressed and the CD4 count remains high (above 200 cells/mm3), life can be significantly prolonged and improved.

    However, HIV may become resistant to one combination of HAART, especially in patients who do not take their medications on schedule every day. Genetic tests are now available to determine whether an HIV strain is resistant to a particular drug. This information may be useful in determining the best drug combination for each person, and adjusting the drug regimen if it starts to fail. These tests should be performed any time a treatment strategy begins to fail, and before starting therapy.

    When HIV becomes resistant to HAART, other drug combinations must be used to try to suppress the resistant strain of HIV. There are a variety of new drugs on the market for treating drug-resistant HIV.

    Treatment with HAART has complications. HAART is a collection of different medications, each with its own side effects. Some common side effects are:

    • Collection of fat on the back ("buffalo hump") and abdomen
    • General sick feeling (malaise)
    • Headache
    • Nausea
    • Weakness

    When used for a long time, these medications increase the risk of heart attack, perhaps by increasing the levels of cholesterol and glucose (sugar) in the blood.

    Any doctor prescribing HAART should carefully watch the patient for possible side effects. In addition, blood tests measuring CD4 counts and HIV viral load should be taken every 3 months. The goal is to get the CD4 count as close to normal as possible, and to suppress the amount of HIV virus in the blood to a level where it cannot be detected.

    Other antiviral medications are being investigated. In addition, growth factors that stimulate cell growth, such as erthythropoetin (Epogen, Procrit, and Recomon) and filgrastim (G-CSF or Neupogen) are sometimes used to treat AIDS-associated anemia and low white blood cell counts.

    Medications are also used to prevent opportunistic infections (such as Pneumocystis jiroveci pneumonia) if the CD4 count is low enough. This keeps AIDS patients healthier for longer periods of time. Opportunistic infections are treated when they happen.


    Support Groups

    Joining support groups where members share common experiences and problems can often help the emotional stress of devastating illnesses. See AIDS - support group.


    Expectations (prognosis)

    Right now, there is no cure for AIDS. It is always fatal without treatment. In the U.S., most patients survive many years after diagnosis because of the availability of HAART. HAART has dramatically increased the amount of time people with HIV remain alive.

    Research on drug treatments and vaccine development continues. However, HIV medications are not always available in the developing world, where most of the epidemic is raging.


    Complications

    When a person is infected with HIV, the virus slowly begins to destroy that person's immune system. How fast this occurs differs in each individual. Treatment with HAART can help slow or halt the destruction of the immune system.

    Once the immune system is severely damaged, that person has AIDS, and is now susceptible to infections and cancers that most healthy adults would not get. However, antiretroviral treatment can still be very effective, even at that stage of illness.


    Calling your health care provider

    Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have any of the risk factors for HIV infection, or if you develop symptoms of AIDS. By law, the results of HIV testing must be kept confidential. Your health care provider will review results of your testing with you.