The human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, causes a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can damage your immune system over time. When this happens, HIV progresses to AIDS, which can cause life-threatening health problems and even death. This happens as a result of a weakened immune system.
So, is HIV an autoimmune disease? Keep reading to find out.
Is HIV an autoimmune disease?
Your immune system is meant to protect your body from different threats, such as infections or malignant cells. According to the Cleveland Clinic, an autoimmune disease occurs when your immune system malfunctions and attacks your own body. Autoimmune diseases can affect practically any tissue or organ in the human body, and they can cause a wide range of symptoms and complications.
Autoimmune diseases aren’t contagious, although some of them run in families and can be inherited through a genetic pattern. Some autoimmune diseases are easier to manage than others; but in general, these diseases can’t be cured and cause lifelong disease.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, some of the most common autoimmune diseases include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Psoriatic arthritis
- Thyroid disorders
So, is HIV an autoimmune disease?
The answer to this question is slightly more complicated than you may think. Technically speaking, HIV isn’t a disease at all. HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that can cause a lifelong infection and attack the body’s immune system, which can lead to many serious health problems, such as AIDS.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that HIV and AIDS aren’t the same thing, although they’re closely related. According to the CDC, if left untreated, HIV can eventually lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS. But despite the fact that AIDS has a significant impact on our immune system, it isn’t classified as an autoimmune disease.
How does HIV affect the body?
The most important way in which HIV attacks the immune system is by damaging CD4 cells. According to MedlinePlus, CD4 cells are a type of white blood cell that play an important role in fighting off infections.
Patients with HIV usually get a CD4 count test often, since this allows their medical team to determine whether their anti-HIV treatment is working properly, or if the infection is progressing.
AIDS is diagnosed when a patient’s CD4 count falls below a specific threshold. When this happens, the patient’s immune system becomes weakened and can’t fight off infections as it normally would. However, that doesn’t mean that AIDS is an autoimmune disease. In AIDS, the immune system is weakened due to the HIV infection, rather than due to a malfunction of your own body.
However, there could be a link between HIV and autoimmune disorders. A study published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases found that patients living with HIV/AIDS had a higher incidence of certain autoimmune diseases, including:
- Autoimmune hemolytic anemia
- Sjögren syndrome
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
The correlation between HIV/AIDS and autoimmune diseases isn’t clear yet, and more research is still needed to fully understand it.
According to the Mayo Clinic, AIDS typically develops 8 to 10 years after the initial HIV infection if the patient hasn’t received adequate treatment. However, most people who have HIV in developed countries never progress to AIDS. Modern treatments are very effective at reducing HIV viral replication, which can lead to an undetectable viral load. Thanks to these medications, HIV infections can be successfully managed to allow patients to live a long, happy, and healthy life while also protecting their sexual partners.
Despite the fact that HIV/AIDS and autoimmune diseases have different mechanisms, they can cause similar symptoms. In most cases, HIV takes a long time to progress and cause health issues, and different stages of HIV/AIDS can be differentiated.
According to the organization Avert, the stages of HIV/AIDS include:
- Stage 1 or acute primary infection: this is the initial stage of any HIV infection. Some people can develop flu-like symptoms within 2 to 4 weeks of getting infected with the virus, and it’s easy to confuse these symptoms with a common cold or another viral disease. The early symptoms of HIV can include:
- Skin rash
- Sore throat
- Night sweats
- Digestive problems
- Joint pain
- Muscle aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Stage 2 or latent stage: after the initial infection, HIV often goes through an asymptomatic stage. In many cases, HIV doesn’t cause additional symptoms for up to 10 to 15 years. However, that doesn’t mean that the infection isn’t silently progressing. The virus is still replicating inside the body during the latent stage, and you can still transmit the virus to other people, even if you’re not showing any signs of HIV.
- Stage 3 or AIDS: as mentioned above, AIDS occurs once your immune system has been significantly weakened by HIV. This leaves your body prone to infections that can threaten your life. However, patients living with AIDS should still receive treatment as early as possible in order to control the disease.
Autoimmune diseases - my.clevelandclinic.org
What Are Common Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease? - hopkinsmedicine.org
About HIV - cdc.gov
CD4 Lymphocyte Count - medlineplus.gov
HIV/AIDS - mayoclinic.org
SYMPTOMS AND STAGES OF HIV INFECTION - avert.org