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Complications that occur with HIV

Friday 17 April 2020
5 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. Overview of HIV

II. Infections that occur with HIV/AIDS

III. Cancers

IV. Neurological complications

V. Other complications

VI. Treatment plan

Overview of HIV

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a life-threatening condition that is caused by human immunodeficiency virus, also known as HIV. HIV attacks specific parts of the immune system. The virus destroys CD4 or T cells and when these cells are destroyed, the body has a hard time fighting off infections.

If the infected person does not receive the proper antiretroviral therapy (ART), the infected T cells make more copies of themselves, which increases the amount of virus in your blood. This causes the CD4 cells to swell and burst and when the CD4 count drops below 200, a person will have progressed to AIDS.

Today, people can live a long and healthy life with HIV with medications like Kaletra and Edurant. Still, it is important to be aware of some of the complications that can occur. A common cold or infection can become much more serious with HIV and the right precautions should be taken to make sure you keep your body healthy. Read on to learn more about complications that can occur with HIV. [1]

Infections that occur with HIV/AIDS

Candidiasis (thrush): This is a common HIV-related infection that causes inflammation and a white coating on the mouth, tongue, esophagus, or vagina.

a tongue infected with thrush

Toxoplasmosis: This infection is caused by Toxoplasma gondii, which is a parasite typically spread by cats. Humans can become infected by coming in contact with parasites in the stool of infected cats. This parasite can cause heart disease and seizures if it spreads to the brain.

Tuberculosis (TB): TB is a very common opportunistic infection that is caused by the mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria. TB primarily affects the lungs and can cause a prolonged cough and chest pain. TB still occurs in developing nations, but HIV patients are more likely to contract this bacterial infection.

Cytomegalovirus: This is a common herpes virus that is transmitted through urine, semen, breast milk, and saliva. In a healthy immune system, the body inactivates this virus and remains dormant. An HIV positive person has a compromised immune system, so they are more likely to contract this virus.

Cryptococcal meningitis: This is a type of meningitis caused by a fungus found in soil. Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes and fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord. This is the most common central nervous system infection associated with HIV.

Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP): This is a fungal infection that affects the lungs and causes pneumonia in those with a weak immune system. PCP is not as common as it used to be, but it is still a leading cause of pneumonia in those with HIV.


Kaposi’s Sarcoma: This type of cancer forms in the lining of blood and lymph vessels. The tumors of Kaposi’s sarcoma appear as purple spots on the legs, feet, or face. They can also appear in the genital area, mouth, or lymph nodes. This cancer most often affects those with HIV. If it is left untreated, this cancer can also detrimentally affect internal organs, as well as the digestive tract and lungs.

a doctor showing a cancer patient their medical chart

Lymphoma: HIV is a virus that kills the body’s white blood cells, so lymphoma is, unsurprisingly, a common illness for those infected. Lymphoma cancer starts by attacking the infection-fighting white blood cells (lymphocytes) found in the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, and bone marrow. When you have lymphoma, lymphocytes change and grow out of control. The two main types are Non-Hodgkin and Hodgkin lymphoma.

Neurological complications

Neuropathy: HIV can cause damage to the nerves throughout the body. This damage results in pain, weakness, tingling, and muscle weakness in the affected area. Neuropathies often start in the hands and feet.

Vacuolar myelopathy: This condition occurs when tiny holes develop in the fibers of nerves in the spinal cord. This condition causes difficulty walking and is common in people with AIDS who are not receiving the proper treatment.

Dementia: Dementia can occur when HIV becomes advanced. Advanced HIV/AIDS can impair cognitive function, which can lead to trouble thinking, understanding, and remembering. This version of dementia can be life-threatening if the proper antiretroviral medicines are not taken.

Other complications

Kidney Disease: HIV can be associated with nephropathy, which is an inflammation of the tiny filters in the kidneys. The kidneys remove excess fluid and wastes from your blood and pass them to your urine. This is also known as HIV associated nephropathy.

Liver disease: The liver is important in the body because it filters blood, removing toxic substances from drugs, food and body waste. It also makes bile, which helps the gut digest fat and then release energy to the body. Those with HIV can easily develop liver problems like hepatitis B or hepatitis C.

Wasting syndrome: Wasting syndrome is not a specific disease, but a common occurrence in those who are not properly taking their ART medications. Wasting syndrome is characterized by a loss of at least 10% of a person’s body weight, especially muscle. It is important to eat healthily and get enough nutrients. HIV patients should keep an eye on their weight and eat even when they are not hungry. [2]

anatomical dummies showing the internal body processes

Treatment plan

A doctor will perform several tests to determine the severity and stage of a person’s HIV condition. Your doctor will perform antigen and antibody tests to determine if the virus is detectable in the blood. The doctor will also draw blood from the vein to perform a Nucleic acid test. This test will determine if you have been exposed to HIV in the past few weeks.

Once the doctor has determined the presence of HIV in the blood, they will order additional lab tests to see if you may have already been affected by opportunistic infections or complications, like the ones listed above. Your doctor will create a comprehensive ART medication plan to help control the virus from replicating within your blood. Some commonly prescribed medications include Kaletra and Edurant. [3] 

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.