Can HIV Cause Weight Loss?

Can HIV Cause Weight Loss?

Table of Contents

Patients who have HIV may experience a variety of symptoms of the virus. One fairly common symptom is weight loss. What’s the connection between HIV/AIDS and weight loss? What factors might lead to weight loss in a person with HIV? Is there anything that an HIV-positive person can do to help prevent weight loss?

Do you lose weight with HIV?

Weight loss with HIV is relatively common. Studies have found that between 14% and 38% of HIV patients will experience HIV wasting syndrome. This is defined as a decrease in body weight of 10% or more, accompanied by 30 days or more of diarrhea and/or fever. 

Even a smaller amount of weight loss can make a difference. In people with HIV, a 5% loss in body weight is associated with an increased risk for progression of the virus. That’s a weight loss of just 10 pounds in a 200-pound person. This is why it’s crucial for people with HIV to take steps to maintain their weight, and address any weight loss as soon as possible.

HIV and weight loss causes

There are a number of different reasons that a person with HIV may experience weight loss, including:

  • Medication side effects. With many of the medications used to treat HIV, loss of appetite is a possible side effect.
  • Opportunistic infections or cancers. HIV can make a person more vulnerable to certain types of infections. Fighting off an infection increases the body’s energy needs, so sometimes an infection causes a person to lose weight. Similarly, with an HIV-associated cancer, the cancer cells may consume significant amounts of energy, which leads to weight loss.
  • Trouble eating. HIV and associated opportunistic infections can cause issues like sores in the mouth, which can make it uncomfortable for people to eat. They may not be able to eat enough food to maintain their weight.
  • Digestive problems. Similarly, opportunistic infections may affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrients through the digestive system. Even if a person is able to eat enough, they may not be able to absorb food well enough to maintain their weight.
  • Increased resting energy expenditure. HIV itself is also known to increase the body’s energy needs, which requires HIV patients to eat more in order to prevent weight loss.

Patients with HIV who experience rapid weight loss should discuss this with their doctors. Because weight loss is associated with an increased risk for progression of the virus, it’s important to ensure that any HIV weight loss symptoms are addressed as soon as possible. 

Treating opportunistic infections with antibiotics can make a difference for many patients. Reducing levels of the virus in the blood can also help. This may involve switching to different antiretroviral medications, in order to get HIV under better control. In some patients, medications intended to stimulate appetite may also be useful to help patients maintain their body weight.

Treating HIV early in the course of the disease can help to prevent progression to later stages. This is why it’s so important to get tested. A simple blood test can be used to check for HIV, and the blood sample can even be obtained at home using a fingerprick. This sample is then sent to a laboratory, and the HIV test results are then delivered online.

Sources

Badowski ME, Perez SE. Clinical utility of dronabinol in the treatment of weight loss associated with HIV and AIDS. HIV AIDS (Auckl) 2016;8:37-45.

Baker B. How to recognize wasting syndrome. Posit Aware Mar-Apr 1998;9(2):21.

Healthy Living with HIV. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/livingwithhiv/healthy-living.html. Accessed 25 April 2022.

Williams B, Waters D. Evaluation and treatment of weight loss in adults with HIV disease. Am Fam Physician 1999 Sep 1;60(3):843-54, 857-60.


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