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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.

HIV, AIDS, and sepsisAt 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 a very quick one at that.

Sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning, sepsis is the body’s often deadly response to infection. Sepsis kills and disables millions and requires early suspicion and rapid treatment for survival.

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.

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
  • Childbirth
  • 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:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes (lymph glands)
  • Sore throat
  • Rash

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
  • Headaches
  • Vision changes
  • White spots or sores on your tongue and in your mouth
  • Fatigue

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 him or her
  • 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.

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 August 30, 2020.