HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, is the virus that causes AIDS, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Statistics show that over 1 million people in the United States are infected with the virus. Almost 40 million are infected across the world. Twenty five million have died of HIV/AIDS. People who have AIDS have HIV, but people who have the virus do not necessarily have AIDS.
At the XVI International AIDS Conference in 2006, researchers said, “The final common pathway of untreated AIDS is progressive immunosupression over many years followed by an acute critical illness, usually sepsis, and death, often within 48 hours.” In other words, sepsis is the most common cause of death from AIDS and it occurs very quickly.
In a study published in 2020, researchers found that for people living with HIV in the US and Canada, sepsis or infection was the top reason for hospitalization over the course of the study.
Sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning, sepsis is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations.
What are HIV and AIDS?
HIV is a retrovirus that infects your cells, using their energy and nutrients to grow and spread. It attacks your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to infections and diseases. Some of these infections and diseases may only cause mild symptoms and discomfort to non-infected people, but they could be deadly for those who have the virus.
You may hear the term CD4 when people talk about HIV. CD4 cells are a type of white blood cells called lymphocytes. Their role is to help fight infection. As the virus progresses, the CD4 levels in your blood drop. According to the Centers for Disease Control, anyone with a CD4 count of less that 200 is considered to have AIDS, although many doctors will start treatment at a count of 350. People who do not have the virus generally have CD4 levels of between 600 and 1,200.
Some communities have higher rates of HIV infections:
- According to this study, the HIV infection rate among Black/African Americans is more than seven times the rate for whites; the rate for those who are multiracial is more than 5.6 times the rate for whites; and the rate for Hispanics/Latinos is more than three times the rate for whites.
- Men are also four times more likely than women to have HIV.
- In a 2019-2020 study of transgender women, 42% had HIV (62% of Black/African American transgender women, 35% of Hispanic/Latina transgender women, and 17% of white transgender women).
- Transgender women in the United States have 34 times the odds of HIV infection as compared to all adults of reproductive age.
- “From 2015 through 2019 in the United States and six dependent areas, the number of diagnoses of HIV infection for transgender adults and adolescents increased… In 2019, among transgender adults and adolescents, the largest percentage (93%) of diagnoses of HIV infections was for transgender male-to-female (MTF) people.”
What is the connection between HIV/AIDS and sepsis?
People with HIV/AIDS do get sepsis more easily than people who do not have the infection. For example:
- HIV significantly increases the risk of contracting COVID-19 and is associated with worse outcomes (2021 study)
- People with HIV who are Black, Hispanic, women, or transgender are much more likely to be hospitalized than white patients and cisgender men (2021 study)
How do you get it?
HIV is a virus that can be passed along through body fluids. This means you can pass it on or contract it through:
- Sexual activity
- Sharing an injection needle
- Poking yourself accidentally with a contaminated needle (usually in a healthcare facility)
AIDS is contracted once the virus has overwhelmed the body and you now are much more susceptible to infection.
What are the symptoms?
Many people who contract HIV do not develop any symptoms, while others may show flu-like signs and symptoms. These can last a few weeks:
- Swollen lymph nodes (lymph glands)
- Sore throat
Yet others with the infection may begin to develop these symptoms slowly, as the virus progresses.
AIDS symptoms begin as infections take hold when the CD4 numbers have dropped and can vary between people. Some of the more common symptoms are:
- Night sweats (can be soaking right through)
- Fever, continuously over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius)
- Diarrhea (chronic)
- Weight loss
- Vision changes
- White spots or sores on your tongue and in your mouth
What treatment is available for HIV and AIDS?
Currently, there is no cure for HIV or AIDS. While many people can live a long time with the virus, particularly if they receive treatment, once they develop AIDS, there isn’t much that can be done other than treat the infections and diseases that they experience.
When someone is diagnosed with HIV, blood tests are done on a regular basis to see how far the infection is progressing. As long as the blood levels stay healthy and the CD4 levels are high enough, there is usually not much to be done. However, once the CD4 levels begin to drop, treatment with anti-retrovirals may begin in what is called highly active anti-retroviral therapy, or HAART.
These medications are very powerful and can have strong, undesirable side effects. So, the doctors must carefully balance the dosages – enough to help fight the HIV progress but not enough that you experience bad effects.
Not all treatments help everyone, so if one treatment doesn’t seem to be helping, you will likely be offered other options. This trial-and-error approach isn’t uncommon in medicine because everyone responds differently to medications.
Can it be prevented?
Yes, HIV can be prevented. AIDS, however, cannot. AIDS can be held off with HAART, but it can’t be prevented.
To protect yourself from the virus:
- Do not have unprotected sex with someone whose sexual history you don’t know
- Use a new, intact condom every time you have sex
- Do not share needles with anyone, no matter how much you trust them
- If you must receive blood or blood products in another country, be screened for HIV as soon as you return to the United States
If you have the virus, to prevent spreading it: Consider abstaining from sexual activity or ensuring that you use safe sex practices if you are sexually active
- Do not share any needles
- Consider abstaining from sexual activity or ensuring that you use safe sex practices if you are sexually active
- Do not donate blood or blood products
- If you are pregnant, inform your doctor right away so you can discuss anti-retroviral therapy to protect your baby
There is no cure for HIV or AIDS, but it can be prevented in most cases.
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
The information here is also available as a Sepsis Information Guide, which is a downloadable format for easier printing.
You can learn more about infection prevention among people who are immunocompromised by clicking here.
Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.
Updated February 28, 2022.