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HIV/AIDS

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HIV-Related Infections and Cancers: Overview

for Veterans and the Public

HIV-related infections and cancers: Overview

HIV weakens your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to certain infections and cancers. The infections are called "opportunistic" infections (OIs) because they take the opportunity to attack you when your immune system is weak. The cancers are called "HIV related" cancers because they appear mostly in people who have advanced, later-stage HIV infection, known as AIDS. Note that these illnesses do not occur only in people with HIV; they may occur in other people as well. Fortunately, most people who are diagnosed with HIV in the current era will not develop OIs or AIDS-related cancers. If people with HIV are diagnosed early and started on HIV medications, their immune systems are strengthened and they are protected from opportunistic illnesses.

Most people who die of AIDS do not die from the virus itself. They die from OIs or cancers. 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 may become uncontrolled and make them sick.

If you have HIV, you can take antibiotics to prevent some OIs 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 for most people.

Studies have shown that starting HIV medicines soon after you are diagnosed, and ideally when your CD4 cell count is high, will greatly help your health and will reduce the risk of OIs. Also, starting early may prevent some damage that is irreversible and may reduce the risk of damage to organs like the brain, heart, and liver. If your CD4 count is low, it is important to have it checked regularly. OIs and AIDS-related cancers 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.