Without medical intervention, AIDS progresses along a typical course. Within one to three weeks after infection with HIV, most people experience flu-like symptoms, such as fever, sore throat, headache, skin rash, tender lymph nodes, and a vague feeling of discomfort. These symptoms last one to four weeks. During this phase, known as acute retroviral syndrome, HIV reproduces rapidly in the blood. The virus circulates in the blood throughout the body, particularly concentrating in organs of the lymphatic system.
The normal immune defenses against viral infections eventually activate to battle HIV in the body, reducing but not eliminating HIV in the blood. Infected individuals typically enter a prolonged asymptomatic phase, a symptom-free period that can last ten years or more. While persons who have HIV may remain in good health during this period, HIV continues to replicate, progressively destroying the immune system. Often an infected person remains unaware that he or she carries HIV and unknowingly transmits the virus to others during this phase of the infection.
When HIV infection reduces the number of CD4 cells to around 200 per microliter of blood, the infected individual enters an early symptomatic phase that may last a few months to several years. HIV-infected persons in this stage may experience a variety of symptoms that are not life-threatening but may be debilitating. These symptoms include extensive weight loss and fatigue (wasting syndrome), periodic fever, recurring diarrhea, and thrush, a fungal mouth infection. An early symptom of HIV infection in women is a recurring vaginal yeast infection. Unlike earlier stages of the disease, in this early symptomatic phase the symptoms that develop are severe enough to cause people to seek medical treatment. Many may first learn of their infection in this phase.
If CD4 cell levels drop below 200 cells per microliter of blood, the late symptomatic phase develops. This phase is characterized by the appearance of any of 26 opportunistic infections and rare cancers. The onset of these illnesses, sometimes referred to as AIDS-defining complications, is one sign that an HIV-infected person has developed full-blown AIDS. Without medical treatment, this stage may last from several months to years. The cumulative effects of these illnesses usually cause death.
Often the first opportunistic infection to develop is pneumocystis pneumonia, a lung infection caused by the fungus Pneumocystis carinii. This fungus infects most people in childhood, settling harmlessly in the lungs where it is prevented from causing disease by the immune system. But once the immune system becomes weakened, the fungus can block the lungs from delivering sufficient oxygen to the blood. The lack of oxygen leads to severe shortness of breath accompanied by fever and a dry cough.
In addition to pneumocystis pneumonia, people with AIDS often develop other fungal infections. Up to 23 percent of people with AIDS become infected with fungi from the genus Cryptococcus, which cause meningitis, inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain. Infection by the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum affects up to 10 percent of people with AIDS, causing general weight loss, fever, and respiratory complications.
Tuberculosis, a severe lung infection caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, typically becomes more severe in AIDS patients than in those with a healthy immune system. Between the 1950s and the late 1980s, tuberculosis was practically eradicated in North America. In the early 1990s, doctors became alarmed when incidence of the disease dramatically escalated. This resurgence has been attributed to the increased susceptibility to tuberculosis of people infected with HIV. Infection by the bacterium Mycobacterium avium can cause fever, anemia, and diarrhea. Other bacterial infections of the gastrointestinal tract contribute to wasting syndrome.
Opportunistic infections caused by viruses, especially members of the herpesvirus family, are common in people with AIDS. One of the herpesviruses, cytomegalovirus (CMV), infects the retina of the eye and can result in blindness. Another herpesvirus, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), may cause certain types of blood cancers. Infections with herpes simplex virus (HSV) types 1 or 2 may result in sores around the mouth, genital area, or anus.
Many people with AIDS develop cancers. The destruction of CD4 cells impairs the immune functions that halt the development of cancer. Kaposi’s sarcoma is a cancer of blood vessels caused by a herpesvirus. This cancer produces purple lesions on the skin, which can spread to internal organs and cause death. B cell lymphoma affects certain cells of the lymphatic system that fight infection and perform other vital functions. Cervical cancer is more common in HIV-infected women than in women free from infection.
A variety of neurological disorders are common in the later stage of AIDS. Collectively called HIV-associated dementia, they develop when HIV or another microbial organism infects the brain. The infection produces degeneration of intellectual processes such as memory and, sometimes, problems with movement and coordination.
Symptoms in Children
HIV infection in children progresses more rapidly than in adults, most likely because the immune systems in children have not yet built up immunity to many infectious agents. The disease is particularly aggressive in infants—more than half of infants born with an HIV infection die before age two. Once a child is infected, the child’s undeveloped immune system cannot prevent the virus from multiplying quickly in the blood. This extensive virus burden speeds the progression of the disease. In contrast, when adults become infected with HIV, their immune system generally fights the infection. Therefore, HIV levels in adults remain lower for an extended period, delaying the progression of the disease.
Children develop many of the opportunistic infections that befall adults but also exhibit symptoms not observed in older patients. Among infants and children, HIV infection produces wasting syndrome and slows growth (generally referred to as failure to thrive). HIV typically infects a child’s brain early in the course of the disease, impairing intellectual development and coordination skills. While HIV can infect the brains of adults, it usually does so toward the later stages of the disease and produces different symptoms.