AIDS is the advanced stage of HIV infection, when the immune system is damaged. Without treatment, about half of those with HIV develop AIDS within 10 years, although the period between infection and development varies widely, from one to 20 years.

Symptoms of AIDS are caused by the deterioration of the immune system and the decline of CD4+ T cells, which are the immune system's key infection fighters. As soon as HIV enters the body, it begins to destroy these cells. Some common symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than a week
  • Dry cough
  • Memory loss, depression and neurological disorders
  • Pneumonia
  • Profound, unexplained fatigue
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Recurring fever or profuse night sweats
  • Red, brown, pink or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose or eyelids
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People are diagnosed with AIDS when they have certain signs or symptoms defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC's definition of AIDS includes:

  • Less than 200 CD4+ T cells per cubic millimeter of blood, compared with about 1,000 CD4+ T cells for healthy people. CD4+T cells are white blood cells that play an important role in the body's immune system. These cells are destroyed by HIV. Even when a HIV-positive person feels well and is not experiencing any symptoms of the disease, CD4+ T cells are being infected by HIV.
  • CD4+ T cells accounting for less than 14 percent of all lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell.
  • One of more of the illnesses listed below:
    • Candidiasis of bronchi, esophagus, trachea or lungs
    • Cervical cancer that is invasive
    • Coccidioidomycosis that has spread
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At this time, there is no cure for AIDS, but medications are effective in fighting HIV and its complications. Treatments are designed to reduce HIV in your body, keep your immune system as healthy as possible and decrease the complications you may develop.

You and your doctor will work together to develop a treatment plan that best meets your needs. Three main factors will be considered when designing your treatment plan:

  • Your willingness and readiness to begin therapy
  • The stage of your disease
  • Other health problems

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a number of drugs for treating HIV and AIDS. It's important that you take your medications exactly as prescribed. This is a crucial part of your treatment success. Our program offers pharmacy services to help you maintain your drug regimen and to answer any questions you may have.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.