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, started on and adhere to HIV treatments, their immune system is strengthened and they are protected from opportunistic illnesses.
If you have HIV, you can take antibiotics to prevent some OIs from causing disease. For example, one common OI is Pneumocystis pneumonia (also called PCP). Most people already have the microbe that causes PCP in their body, but it doesn't make them sick. A person with HIV, 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 provider 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 provider. Plan on having regular checkups — which means at least every 3 months for most people.