For many years, a diagnosis of HIV and AIDS was panic-inducing. Now, medications are available that can prevent and dramatically slow down the progression of these diseases, allowing people to live more normal lives. However, there is still no cure for HIV and AIDS. As the disease progresses, it may be prudent to consider how you or your loved one would like to be treated later in its development. This guide will help you understand the HIV/AIDS symptoms you might encounter in the later stages of the illness.
What Is HIV and AIDS?
While often talked about in the same context, HIV and AIDS are two separate illnesses. HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, weakens the immune system by destroying the white blood cells that fight infections. This puts people who have HIV at serious risk for infections and certain types of cancers, which the body is then unable to fight off effectively. AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is the final stage of infection caused by HIV, and it leaves the immune system even weaker. Not everyone with HIV develops AIDS, which can appear years after the initial HIV diagnosis.
Low CD4 Cell Count
In the last stage of HIV infection, a person will develop AIDS. This is determined when CD4 T cells, a type of lymphocyte that helps support immune system responses to illnesses, become critically low. A doctor may determine that a person has AIDS when they do a test to count CD4 T cells or when the patient develops a secondary illness, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, or specific types of cancer, after living with HIV.
Rapid Weight Loss
People living with late stage HIV/AIDS may suddenly and quickly lose weight as the illness develops. This is because they begin having a more difficult time absorbing nutrients into their systems. Frequent diarrhea and vomiting also contribute to this symptom and can also cause severe dehydration. So, it is important to ensure the frequent intake of fluids.
Fevers are also common in those living with HIV/AIDS. The fevers are typically caused by the body’s immune system, which attempts to remove harmful pathogens in the person by increasing body temperature. Because the immune system is weakened, however, the fevers occur again and again as the body tries to continue fighting the infections in the body.
Pronounced Fatigue and Weakness
The weakened state of the immune system and the lack of nutrients can often make people feel extremely tired and weak. They may need frequent breaks when trying to complete daily tasks, and they might not be able to walk for very long before taking another break. This can often be frustrating, particularly for active people who previously enjoyed a greater sense of independence and also the ability to undertake more physical activities.
Swollen Lymph Glands
As with other infections, people with HIV/AIDS can experience a swelling in the lymph glands, typically in the neck, armpits, and groin. This swelling can cause discomfort, particularly in the later stages of the illness. Swollen glands can be treated with antiretroviral therapies and medications, as well as with warm compresses, plenty of rest, and over the counter pain relievers.
HIV/AIDS has also been shown to impact neurological functions, including memory and mood. People living with these diseases may experience a modest decline in mental abilities that does not seriously impact their everyday lives. Or they may develop HIV-associated dementia, which can dramatically affect their memory, the ability to control their bladder and bowels, and their daily lives.
It is also common to develop serious mood disorders, including depression, due to the severity of one’s condition and eventual prognosis. If you or a loved one has HIV/AIDS, pay careful attention to changes in mood, interest in old hobbies, and the ability to sleep, among other changes that might indicate depression or other treatable mood disorders.
How Hospice Care Can Help
As HIV/AIDS symptoms continue to take their course, it may be beneficial to consider hospice care, which allows people with these illnesses to receive medical interventions that may make them feel more comfortable — including spiritual and mental counseling and pain management — during the last few months of their lives. Hospice care is typically given by a team of specially trained nurse practitioners, doctors, therapists, counselors, and volunteers in the comfort of one’s own home.
Speak to Harbor Light Hospice for more information about HIV/AIDS symptoms and hospice care for people in the later stages of these illnesses. Harbor Light’s hospice care teams create customized plans in collaboration with family and primary care doctors to ensure that patients’ unique needs are met. The provider also arranges for mental and spiritual counseling for caretakers and family members who are impacted by their loved one’s condition.