AIDS, which stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus. The initial HIV infection may cause no symptoms, or may cause a short, severe flu-like illness. After the initial infection, the disease usually lies dormant, causing no symptoms, as the virus slowly destroys the immune system. The dormant phase can last anywhere from 8 to 20 years, until the signs of AIDS begin to develop. AIDS often begins with mild, chronic symptoms, and then progresses to more serious symptoms. The final stages of AIDS are usually characterized by debilitating symptoms, resulting ultimately in death.
During the final stages of AIDS, the HIV virus has severely weakened the immune system, meaning the body cannot fight off infections from the numerous microorganisms that constantly come into contact with the body. These infections are known as opportunistic infections. As a result, people with advanced AIDS develop repeated infections of many types of diseases, including pneumonia, tuberculosis, chronic herpes simplex causing recurring sores on the mouth and genitals, cytomegalovirus, toxoplasmosis, meningitis, cryptosporidiosis and septacemia, among others, according to the World Health Organization.
Decline of Mental Function
The opportunistic infections and the HIV virus itself can have severely detrimental effects on the brain. People in the final stages of AIDS often develop "AIDS dementia" and suffer from trouble concentrating and thinking, memory problems, difficulty moving, trouble speaking, decreased alertness, extreme mood swings and lessening interest in the world around them. As AIDS progresses, patients may spend increasing time sleeping. When awake, they may forget the time or day, be confused about their surroundings and fail to recognize people, explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
HIV Wasting Syndrome
In the final stages of AIDS, the body begins to fail in a process sometimes called HIV wasting syndrome. Patients often stop eating and drinking, and may lose control of the bladder or bowels. A catheter is sometimes necessary to control passing urine. Circulation problems often develop, leaving the skin cool to the touch and subject to bruising or sores where the body is in contact with the bed. Vision and hearing may deteriorate, and the patient may experience periods of restlessness and agitation. Frequently, fluids may collect in the back of the throat if the patient is too weak to cough up mucus, causing noisy, rasping breathing.
The immune system is also involved in preventing certain types of cancer. As the immune system breaks down in the late stages of AIDS, cancer occurs more frequently. Chances of developing Kaposi's sacrcoma, a cancer affecting the intestines, lungs and skin; non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes; and invasive cervical carcinoma are all increased during the final stages of AIDS.
- World Health Organization: WHO Case Definitions of HIV for Surveillance and Revised Clinical Staging and Immunological Classification of HIV-Related Disease in Adults and Children
- Avert.org: The Different Stages of HIV Infection
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Changing Symptoms
- Medline Plus: AIDS
- AIDS.gov: Signs and Symptoms