HIV/AIDS & Opportunistic Infections

“Opportunistic infection” is a phrase that most people probably aren’t familiar with. While all people are vulnerable to infection at various times in their lives, an opportunistic infection is a very specific affliction that affects a very specific population. Context clues suggest a certain meaning- namely, an infection that takes advantage of an opportunity, such as a weakened immune system- but the context clues only scratch the surface of what an opportunistic infection is, who it affects, and why.

Op·por·tun·is·tic  in·fec·tion

/ˌäpərt(y)o͞oˈnistik/  /inˈfekSH(ə)n/

An infection by a microorganism that does not cause disease but becomes pathogenic when the body’s immune system is impaired and unable to fight off infection, as in AIDS and certain other diseases.
(source: The American Heritage® Stedman’s Medical Dictionary)

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is an advanced stage of HIV infection that occurs as a result of the immune system’s severe ability to fight off disease. Very serious infections and cancers, known as opportunistic infections (OIs), can develop and wreak havoc because the weakened immune system leaves the body defenseless. Even benign afflictions, such as a common cold, can become life-threatening condition due to the infected person’s inability to recover.
The average progression of an untreated case of HIV to AIDS is 10 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HIV and AIDS are distinguished from one another by levels of CD4 cells, the cells that fight infection and disease, in the blood. If a person’s CD4 count is 200 or greater, their infection is still considered a case of HIV. Anything below is considered AIDS. Opportunistic infections are another sign that an HIV infection has progressed to the AIDS stage. Many opportunistic infections are actually preventable or treatable, but regardless of CD4 cell count, if an HIV-positive person is diagnosed with any of the opportunistic infections identified by the CDC as being HIV-related, they are diagnosed with AIDS.

HIV-Related Opportunistic Infections:

  • Candidiasis of bronchi, trachea, esophagus, or lungs– an illness caused by a typically harmless fungus called Candida
  • Invasive cervical cancer– cancer that starts in the cervix and spreads to other parts of the body
  • Coccidioidomycosis– an illness caused by the fungus Coccidioides immitis, which leads to pneumonia
  • Cryptococcosis– an illness caused by the fungus Cryptococcus neoformans, which leads to pneumonia
  • Chronic intestinal Cryptosporidiosis– an diarrheal disease caused by the protozoan parasite Cryptosporidium
  • Cytomegalovirus diseases (CMV)– A virus that causes pneumonia, gastroenteritis, encephalitis of the brain, and retinitis
  • Encephalopathy– A brain disorder caused by acute or chronic HIV infection
  • Herpes simplex (HSV)– a viral STD that causes cold sores, blisters, pneumonia, and bronchial or esophageal infection
  • Histoplasmosis– a lung illness caused by the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum
  • Chronic intestinal Isosporiasis– an illness caused by food or water contaminated with the parasite Isospora belli
  • Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS)– cancer caused by a the virus Kaposi’s sarcoma herpesvirus (KHSV) or human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8)
  • Lymphoma– cancer of the lymph nodes or lymphoid tissues
  • Tuberculosis (TB)– a respiratory infection caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis
  • Mycobacterium aviumcomplex (MAC)– a bacterial infection caused by typically harmless types of mycobacterium
  • Pneumocystis cariniipneumonia (PCP)– a lung infection caused by the fungus Pneumocystis jirovecii
  • Recurrent Pneumonia– infection of one or both lungs caused by germs including bacteria, viruses, or fungi
  • Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy– a rare brain & spinal cord disease caused by the JC virus (almost exclusively HIV-related)
  • Recurrent Salmonella septicemia– an infection caused by food or water contaminated with Salmonella bacteria
  • Toxoplasmosis of the brain– a brain infection caused by exposure to the parasite Toxoplasma gondii through fecal remains of rodents, cats, and birds
  • Wasting syndrome due to HIV– involuntary loss of more than 10% of body weight and muscle mass, coupled with diarrhea or weakness and fever lasting more than 30 days

Medically Reviewed by on October 2, 2018

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Author: Kristena Ducre

Kristena is a sex-positive LGBTQ ally and general fan of sexy things. As a writer, she is passionate about empowering people's sex lives with accurate and straightforward information. Sex can be a ton of fun, but sexual health is not a laughing matter. In the bedroom, as in life, knowledge is power.