Most Dangerous Complications of HIV/AIDS

Living with HIV/AIDS can result in a weakened immune system, making the body more susceptible to a host of illnesses. Over time, the virus attacks the body’s CD4 cells, which play a critical role in maintaining a healthy immune system. Patients can reduce their likelihood of developing common life-threatening illnesses by taking a variety of proactive, daily action steps.

What Are HIV/AIDS-Related Opportunistic Illnesses?

Opportunistic illnesses (OIs) capitalize on weakened immune systems. While these illnesses may have little to no significant impact to an individual with a healthy immune system, they can cause devastating effects for HIV/AIDS patients. OIs typically present in HIV/AIDS patients when their CD4 count drops below 200 and are considered AIDS-defining conditions. In general, an HIV patient will not present with OIs if his or her CD4 count is above 500.

The following 20 OIs have been defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as AIDS-defining illnesses:

  • Candidiasis: Common fungal infection that can be treated with antifungal medications following a simple visual examination.
  • Cervical cancer
  • Coccidioidomycosis: Common fungal infection that can lead to pneumonia if left untreated.
  • Cryptococcosis: Fungal infection that often enters through the lungs, quickly spreading to the patient’s brain, often leading to cryptococcal meningitis. Left untreated, this fungal infection is often fatal.
  • Cryptosporidiosis: This diarrheal disease often becomes chronic; it is characterized by severe diarrhea and abdominal cramping.
  • Cytomegalovirus. This common global virus affects most adults during their lifetime. In HIV/AIDS patients, it often presents with eye or gastrointestinal infections.
  • HIV-related encephalopathy: Often referred to as HIV/AIDs-related dementia, it can be defined as a degenerative brain condition affecting patients with CD4 counts of less than 100. Current estimates suggest it impacts roughly 25 percent of AIDS patients.
  • Herpes simplex (chronic) and herpes zoster: Herpes simplex can be characterized as red, painful sores that appear on the mouth or genital area. Herpes zoster, or shingles, presents with painful blisters on skin surfaces. While there is no cure for either, medications are available to alleviate some symptoms.
  • Histoplasmosis: This environmental fungal infection is commonly treated with antibiotics.
  • Isosporiasis: This parasitic fungus develops when patients drink or come into contact with contaminated food and water sources. It is currently treated with antiparasitic drugs.
  • Kaposi’s sarcoma: This form of cancer often presents with either oral lesions or lesions covering the skin surfaces. Current treatments include radiation and/or chemotherapy to shrink the tumors and antiretroviral therapy to boost the body’s CD4 cell count.
  • Lymphoma: A variety of cancers frequently present in HIV/AIDS patients. Treatment will vary based upon the cancer type and condition of the patient.
  • Mycobacterium avium complex: These environmental bacteria often present in patients with severely compromised immune systems, CD4 cell counts of less than 50. If this bacteria enters the bloodstream, it often results in death.
  • Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia: This OI is currently the leading cause of death in HIV/AIDS patients. Careful monitoring and antibiotic therapies are currently used to treat the patient following diagnosis.
  • Pneumonia that has become chronic.
  • Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy: This neurological condition often affects patients with CD4 cell counts below 200. While there is no current treatment for this disease, some response has been shown with antiretroviral therapies.
  • Toxoplasmosis: This parasitic infection commonly strikes HIV/AIDS patients with CD4 cell counts that have fallen below 200. Prophylaxis treatments are used as a preventive measure for patients posting low CD4 cell counts.
  • Tuberculosis. Most common in low-income areas of the globe, tuberculosis can be successfully treated in most cases if caught early. 
  • Wasting syndrome (HIV-related): Defined as unwanted body loss and a total weight loss of more than 10 percent of the patient’s normal body weight. Treatment involves dietary management and continued antiretroviral therapy.

If a patient presents with one or more OIs, the disease will likely be categorized as AIDS regardless of the patient’s current CD4 cell count. While OIs are currently the leading cause of death for individuals living with HIV/AIDS, antiretroviral therapies (HAART) and prophylaxis have shown promise in the prevention of these diseases when taken as directed.

Staying Healthy with HIV/AIDS

The life expectancy and quality of life of an HIV/AIDS-infected patient can be greatly extended through both the introduction of approved drug regimens and healthy daily living habits. HIV/AIDS patients can proactively avoid many OIs by following a daily drug regimen that includes both antiretroviral therapies and prophylaxes. In addition to maintaining drug therapies, HIV/AIDS patients should engage in safe sex practices, avoid illicit drug use and needle sharing, and take extra precautions when working in high-exposure areas such as day-care centers, prisons, health-care facilities, and homeless centers. Some dietary management practices can also reduce the development of OIs, including avoiding raw or undercooked products and unpasteurized dairy products, washing hands frequently when preparing foods, and drinking filtered water.