Human immunodeficiency virus, commonly known as HIV, is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells, often called T cells. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. These special cells help the immune system fight off infections. Untreated, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells in the body. This damage to the immune system makes it harder and harder for the body to fight off infections and some other diseases. Opportunistic infections or cancers take advantage of a very weak immune system and signal that the person has acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, commonly known as AIDS.
Over the past three decades, revolutionary advances in treatment have dramatically improved the prognosis of individuals diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Although no known cure for HIV/AIDS exists, modern treatments have rendered the disease highly manageable. However, while an HIV/AIDS diagnosis is no longer an almost certain death sentence, it still carries the risk of a number of severe, often disabling symptoms.
HIV/AIDS is most frequently treated with antiretroviral medications, which slow the growth of the virus in the patient’s bloodstream, allowing the patient’s immune system to recover and fight off the virus until it is undetectable in blood samples. These medications are typically administered in the form of a single pill that contains a “cocktail” of multiple different antiretroviral drugs. Although these drug cocktails are highly effective in fighting HIV and can essentially eliminate it from a patient’s bloodstream, “reservoirs” of the virus remain in the patient’s body and allow the virus to return to dangerous levels if the patient ceases properly adhering to an antiretroviral treatment regimen. This means that even after patients’ viral loads become undetectable in blood tests, they must continue to adhere to their antiretroviral treatment regimen for the rest of their lives. It is also common for HIV/AIDS patients to have to switch from one antiretroviral drug cocktail from another after the HIV virus in their bodies develop an immunity to one or more of the antiretroviral drugs in the cocktail, so HIV/AIDS patients are always at risk of contracting serious illnesses when their immune systems become compromised due to newly-developed resistances.