What are the effects/consequence of HIV infection

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Answered by: Kym, An Expert in the Opportunistic Infection Category
Opportunistic Infections (OIs), in relationship to HIV/AIDS, are a group of infections that take advantage of a person who has a compromised immune system. One of the major effects/consequence of HIV infection is the inability to efficiently utilize one's immune system against OIs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opportunistic infections are “infections that occur more frequently and are more severe in individuals with weakened immune systems, including people with HIV” (CDC, May 30, 2017, [1]. Theoretically speaking, opportunistic infections can occur in anyone with a medically pre-existing condition, but persons with a healthy immune system are able to effectively fight off these infections. For example, a person who contracts hepatitis or tuberculosis and is otherwise healthy, can easily fight off these infections with proper medical care, attention and treatment. However, if that same person becomes HIV+ or has a terminal illness like cancer, and contracts herpes, pneumonia, or tuberculosis, they will not be able to fight off these infections as easily because their immune system has already been weakened and/or damaged by HIV. Such is one of the effects/consequence of HIV infection. Opportunistic infections typically take advantage of an already damaged/weakened and compromised immune system; the body’s weakened state provides an opportunity for infections to thrive.

Typical examples of opportunistic infections in the US are bacterial pneumonia and tuberculosis. In many parts of West Africa, opportunistic infections are considered to be malaria and other infections that are endemic in those regions.

People with early HIV or who are in the early stage of HIV infection, are not prone to opportunistic infections because their bodies have enough reserves to fight off infections. In other words, the amount of HIV infection in the system is not sufficient enough to deplete the CD4 cells. However, if HIV is left untreated, usually happens when a person does not know their HIV status, never having gotten HIV testing, the CD4 cells can rapidly become depleted.

HIV has several different stages. Each stage of HIV has its own function. The stages are as follows: primary stage is considered the first stage when HIV first establishes itself in the body. The second stage, known as seroconversion, is when the body starts developing antibodies to the virus. The third stage, called chronic HIV infection, is when the HIV infected person enters the asymptomatic period showing no signs or symptoms to the virus. The last stage Advanced HIV disease/Clinical AIDS represents the stage when the infected person experiences severe symptoms including opportunistic infections. Opportunistic infections will usually attack an HIV infected person at this stage because at this point the immune system has been severely compromised. That said, CDC has developed a list of 20 opportunistic infections associated with HIV and determined to be AIDS defining.

A strong, healthy immune system plays a crucial role in fighting off infections whether it’s fighting off a common cold, the progression of AIDS from HIV, or illnesses related to cancer. The immune system provides the first response to fighting off infections and is the home of the CD4 or T- helper cells that are so important in HIV pathology. Because the CD4 T-cells are considered to be the most important component of immune functioning, they are used as a measurement of a healthy immune system.

[1] Opportunistic Infections,

Centers disease control and prevention, CDC

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