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AIDS & HIV opportunistic infections: What you can do to stay healthier

Although modern treatments mean that people who are HIV positive can live long and healthy lives, having a weakened immune system can make them prone to infections.

These are called HIV opportunistic infections and include bacteria, viruses, protozoa, or fungi. Even before you have HIV, you have many of these in your body.
But a healthy immune system normally keeps them under control. These are examples of other places where you can pick up germs that cause HIV opportunistic infections:

  • Unwashed raw foods
  • Soil or water
  • Contact with animal faeces
  • Contact with other people, through unsafe sex or in places where germs are common, such as hospitals, childcare centres, or schools
  • Contact with blood through sharing needles or intravenous drugs

Common HIV opportunistic infections

Almost any disease can become an HIV opportunistic infection when the immune system is weak. Some are more common than others, though. And some are more likely to occur at certain levels of CD4 counts than others. Here are some of the more common HIV opportunistic infections:

There are some differences between women and men with respect to opportunistic infection. Here are a few of them:

  • Men are eight times more likely to develop a cancer called Kaposi's sarcoma.
  • Women are more likely to develop bacterial pneumonia and herpes simplex infections.
  • Women are also more at risk of certain infections that can lead to cancers of the reproductive system.

Preventing HIV opportunistic infections

Many germs that cause HIV-related opportunistic infections are very common. You can undergo tests to learn which ones are already in your body. This will help your doctor know how to treat them and which ones you can focus on preventing. Over 103,000 people in the UK are living with HIV, with between one in five and one in six unaware of their infection. Some don't find out until they end up in the hospital with a severe HIV-related opportunistic infection.

HIV makes copies of itself more quickly when HIV-related opportunistic infections occur. So early treatment is important not only to prevent severe outcomes of infection, but also to preserve the immune system. Here's what you can do to get diagnosis and treatment as early as possible.

  • See your healthcare professionals regularly as advised. If you can, make sure you have a GP who is experienced in HIV treatment and knows how to co-ordinate care well with other specialists.
  • If you're a woman, have smear tests as advised.
  • Keep a record of symptoms to help with diagnosis of HIV-related opportunistic infections. These include raised temperature for more than two days, weight loss, a change in vision, or mouth problems, skin problems, or breathing problems.
  • Seek medical advice if you have any new or unusual symptoms. Don't wait for your regularly scheduled visit.
  • Prepare for appointments by coming with questions and be prepared to take notes.
  • Complete your course of treatment. Don't stop taking it early.
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