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HIV-Related Infections and Cancers: Overview

for Veterans and the Public

Infections and cancers: Overview

HIV weakens your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to certain infections and cancers. The infections are called "opportunistic" because they take the opportunity to attack you when your immune system is weak. The cancers are called "AIDS related" because they appear mostly in people who have advanced, later-stage HIV infection, known as AIDS.

Most people who die of AIDS do not die from the virus itself. They die from opportunistic infections (or "OIs"). Often, people are infected with the OI long before they become infected with HIV. Their functioning immune system keeps the OI under control, so they don't have any symptoms of the infection. Once HIV damages their immune system enough, the OI becomes uncontrolled and makes them sick. In fact, many HIV-negative people have opportunistic infections but don't know about it because their immune system keeps the infections in check.

If you have HIV, you can take antibiotics to prevent the OI from causing disease. For example, one common opportunistic infection is Pneumocystis jiroveci pneumonia (also called PCP). Most people already have the microbe that causes PCP in their body, but it doesn't make them sick. An HIV-positive person, however, may need to take antibiotics to keep from getting very sick.

Why it's important to get an early diagnosis

It is important to catch the early symptoms of OIs and AIDS-related cancers before they take hold in various organs of the body, such as the lungs and brain. The sooner your doctor can diagnose and treat the condition, the more likely you are to make a full recovery. This means you need to keep track of your symptoms and report them to your doctor. Plan on having checkups regularly, at least every 3 months.

Studies are increasingly showing a benefit of starting HIV medicines even at high CD4 cell counts--starting early may help prevent some damage that is irreversible and may reduce the risk of damage to organs like the brain, heart, and liver. If you have chosen not to start HIV medications, Also, it is important to have your CD4 count checked every 3 to 4 months. OIs and AIDS-related cancers tend to occur more commonly in people with lower CD4 counts, and checking your CD4 cell count will allow you to begin necessary prophylactic medications to reduce your risk of opportunistic infections like PCP and mycobacterium Avium and readdress HIV treatment.