In the early years when the disease was first discovered, researches were only concentrating on the end result i.e. AIDS. They were unaware and were missing out on an entire stage leading to the development of AIDS following the initial infection. More correctly, the concentration should have been on the infection causing HIV itself. As found out later, AIDS is the end stage of HIV infection. A person can be HIV positive (i.e. infected by the HIV virus), without having AIDS. Once HIV infects an individual, the virus alters the genetic makeup of the white blood cells (CD4), binding its self to the cells, and then lies dormant. After a period ranging from 5 to 10 years following the initial infection, the HIV virus tricks the infected cell into producing viral proteins, which results in the formation of a huge number of viral particles inside the white cell eventually causing the cell to burst, releasing thousands of new viruses within the blood. These new viruses will now function as a mean to infect new white cells. This cycle goes on and on, and eventually the immune system of the body is overwhelmed and is no longer capable of fighting the infections.
Eventually the infected person may lose weight and become ill with diseases and infections like persistent severe diarrhea, fever, pneumonia, or skin cancer. At this point, the patient is considered to have developed AIDS. Patients with AIDS can be helped with medicines for the different infections. However, sooner or later, because of a lack of cure for the HIV, it is almost certain that individual affected by AIDS will die.
Let us describe the progression of the disease.
HIV infection is a chronic (continuing over a long time), progressive (continually getting worse) disease. It destroys the immune system and produces a wide range of symptoms.
The first stage of HIV infection is the initial exposure. Exposure to HIV can be from sexual contact, needle sharing or other blood exposure, or from mother to infant. About three to six weeks after exposure to HIV, many individuals develop flu like illness. This is the early HIV infection stage. It is also called the acute stage. This flu like symptoms can range from mild to very severe. This stage lasts from 3 to 14 days and sometimes longer. As with the flu, the symptoms, as bad as they may be, do go away, leaving the person thinking wrong assuming that it was just a regular case of flu.
When the flu-like symptoms disappear, the person enters the second stage, the asymptomatic stage. At this time there are no symptoms, and the person looks and feels perfectly healthy. This asymptomatic stage can last for 10 years and sometimes even longer. Unfortunately, during early HIV infection and the asymptomatic stage, the disease can be highly infectious.
When the asymptomatic stage ends, the flu-like symptoms return. This time, however, large swollen glands are usually the most pronounced symptom. For that reason the stage is often called the PGL (persistent generalized lymphadenopathy) stage. This stage lasts generally from three months to a year.
The final stage is AIDS. Unfortunately there is no cure, no immunity, and no vaccine. The average life expectancy from time of AIDS diagnosis to death is about three years. Some get to live longer thanks to the new medical treatments.
Medical studies have shown that the presence of certain factors speed the progression of the disease.
Age: Several studies have shown that age is important. The older an adult is at the time of infection, the faster the disease progresses. This has been shown to be true among hemophiliacs and drug users who are HIV positive. However, the disease progresses faster in infants than in young adults.
Cigarette smoking: Smoking stresses the body and the immune system. Fighting off infection is therefore harder for a smoker.
Alcohol and other drugs: Use of alcohol, drugs including caffeine and substances such as sugar also damages the immune response and may hasten the progression.
Viral strains: There are several strains. Some are more virulent than others. In fact, the virus itself changes, sometimes to a more virulent form. Viruses in asymptomatic individuals tend to be less virulent than viruses found in people with AIDS.
Socioeconomic factors: Economically disadvantaged individuals tend to progress faster towards AIDS. They do not have adequate access to medical care and often live in rundown conditions. They may also have suffered years of poor nutrition and high stress.
Last but not least, psychological factors play an important role in the progression of the disease. Positive mental and spiritual health tend to slow it down.