Dangerous Complications of HIV and AIDS


In this Article

  • HIV Opportunistic Infections
  • HIV and AIDS-Related Cancers
  • Stay Healthy

If you live with an advanced case of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), you can be an easy target for different infections and diseases.

HIV weakens your immune system. It hijacks white blood cells called CD4 cells, or T cells. When the virus destroys too many, your immune system can’t fend off viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other diseases. Treatment with HIV drugs like antiretroviral therapy (ART) can help keep your immune system healthy and greatly lower your chance of getting these conditions.

Some serious infections fall into a category called “AIDS-defining conditions.” If you have one of these, your HIV has advanced to AIDS.

HIV Opportunistic Infections

Opportunistic infections take advantage of your body’s weakened defenses. Germs like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites cause these infections. Better HIV medications have kept these infections at bay for many. But there’s still a small chance that you may catch one. If you’re not taking these medications, or your condition has advanced to AIDS, your risk is higher.

Common opportunistic infections include:

Pneumocystis pneumonia. This fungal infection builds up fluid and inflammation in the lungs.

Candida. This infection happens thanks to a fungus. If yours is tied to AIDS, it shows up in your throat. That can make swallowing tough and cause things like chest pain. Also called esophageal candidiasis, it can move to your lungs and your kidneys. At that point, candida can be fatal.

Tuberculosis. Bacteria attack your lungs. It can also affect other parts of your body.

Cytomegalovirus disease. This virus damages your eyes, digestive tract, or lungs. You can get the virus from bodily fluids.

Cryptococcal meningitis. This fungal infection harms your central nervous system. The membranes and fluids around your brain and spinal cord become inflamed.

Toxoplasmosis. A parasite infects your brain. It can lead to heart disease and seizures. Cats infected by the parasite pass it on in their stools.

Herpes simplex virus infection. This is a common cause of cold sores in your mouth and ulcers around your genitals and anus. In people with advanced HIV, the sores may last a month or longer.

Salmonella infection. This bacteria attacks your gut. It’s commonly associated with food poisoning. In people with advanced HIV, the infection may spread to the bloodstream, causing a severe infection called septicemia.

Advanced HIV and AIDS can cause other medical conditions like liver and kidney disease. You could also have some brain-related issues like:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Dementia

HIV and AIDS-Related Cancers

People with HIV have a higher chance for three types of cancer. If you have HIV and find out you have one of these cancers, it may mean that your HIV has advanced to AIDS.

Kaposi sarcoma. This cancer brings purple skin patches on the legs, feet, or face. It forms in your blood vessels. It also comes together in organs like your lungs or digestive tract.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This cancer affects your body’s lymphatic system. Three subtypes of this cancer are common in people with advanced HIV and AIDS:

  • Aggressive B-cell lymphomas
  • Primary central nervous system lymphoma
  • Primary effusion lymphoma

Cervical cancer. Women infected with HIV have a higher risk of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer affects a woman’s cervix, which connects the uterus and vagina.

People with HIV or AIDS have a higher chance of other cancers. These include:

  • Lung cancer
  • Mouth and throat cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Penile cancer
  • Anal cancer
  • Testicular cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Some types of skin cancer

Stay Healthy

You can take simple steps to lower your chances of getting an opportunistic infection or cancer.

First and foremost, take your HIV medication every day. It keeps the virus in check so it can’t damage your immune system.

Other ways to lower your odds include:

Practice safe sex. Use condoms, internal condoms, and dental dams to ease the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases as well as HIV.

Get vaccinated. Talk to your doctor about which immunizations you need.

Wash your hands. To avoid certain germs that can cause opportunistic infections, wash your hands regularly, and especially:

  • Before and after cooking and mealtimes
  • After using the bathroom or changing baby diapers
  • After you pick up after your dog or change the cat litter

Exercise. Regular activity is important for everyone, including those with HIV. Shoot for a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training each day.

Aerobic exercise is things that get your heart pumping like walking, jogging, biking, and working around the house. It can make your lungs and heart stronger and help prevent heart disease.

Strength training helps keep your muscles strong. Advanced HIV can cause weakening of muscles, so it’s especially important for you to keep your strength up. You can use your own body weight to do things like push-ups or pull-ups. You can also use weights, and even things around your house like milk jugs filled with water.

Make sure to talk with your doctor before you start. They can tell you which exercises might be best for you.

Eat a healthy diet. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains can make your immune system stronger. That can help keep infections away.

If you have advanced HIV, make sure you stick with cooked foods. Raw or undercooked foods can carry germs that can cause opportunistic infections. For example, don’t eat:

  • Raw or undercooked poultry, meat, or shellfish
  • Unpasteurized dairy products
  • Raw or undercooked eggs
  • Unpasteurized fruit juice
  • Raw seed sprouts like alfalfa or mung bean sprouts

Watch your water. Don’t drink untreated water from lakes or streams. In some foreign countries, tap water may not be safe. Drink bottled or filtered water instead.

Quit smoking. Since you may be more likely to get lung and oral cancer, do all you can to kick the habit if you smoke. Your doctor can help you get started.

Show Sources


AIDSinfo: “What is an Opportunistic Infection?”

Medline Plus: “CD4 Lymphocyte Count.”

AIDSinfo: “HIV/AIDS: The Basics.”

Mayo Clinic: “HIV/AIDS.”

Medline Plus: “Tuberculosis.”

CDC: “AIDS and Opportunistic Infections.”

Cancer.Net: “HIV/AIDS-Related Cancer: Introduction.”

Planned Parenthood: “How do I make sex safer?”

National Cancer Institute: “HIV Infection and Cancer Risk.”

The Oral Cancer Foundation: “Candida Infection.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Exercise and HIV: Entire Lesson.”

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