Much has been said about HIV… How it spreads, how it is different from AIDS, and how HIV is a robust virus that the body, once infected, can only comply with its needs. Which specific cells are infected by the HIV virus? When reading about HIV, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases, we pay more attention to what preventive measures we can take.

We do not really try to understand the way the virus behaves and what it does to the body because these are just too ‘technical’ for us. We have written this article to help people realize how HIV really affects the body of an infected person. We will answer specific questions like, ‘which specific cells are infected by the HIV virus?’, ‘how does HIV infect our body?’, and ‘why is HIV called a retrovirus?’.


HIV: A Rundown

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, is a type of Lentivirus. A lentivirus is a group or subfamily of viruses that infect humans and cause deadly diseases that develop in the body for a long time. This justifies the fact that HIV has a long incubation period. In fact, a patient can endure the effects of the virus for years before developing in its advanced stages.


Types of HIV

hiv virus consultationDoctors and specialists categorize HIV types into two. HIV-1 is the more common cause of HIV incidence around the globe. It is the more powerful and potent type, and doctors often call it the lymphadenopathy-associated virus (LAV).  HIV-2 is a less infective type. This means that when you get exposed to this type of HIV, there is a higher chance that you can fight it. If HIV-1 infects the whole world,  HIV-2 is mostly seen in West Africa.


HIV: A Retrovirus?

What does the term retrovirus mean? This means that a virus infects and transmits in reverse. You see, when HIV gets first introduced in the body, it discharges its RNA, and an enzyme termed reverse transcriptase creates a DNA copy of the virus’s RNA. The resulting HIV DNA duplicate is incorporated into the infected cell’s DNA. Most viruses infect the other way around, making RNA copies of the DNA, like polio, flu, or rubella. That is why HIV is a retrovirus.


Which Specific Cells are Infected by the HIV Virus?

If you have done your research well, you may now know how HIV is transmitted to the body. What you did not pay attention to might be the names of the specific cells in the body that get affected first. We understand completely because most of the terms are too scientific that it is better to think of them as, well, human cells. But, which specific cells are infected by the HIV virus?

In general, HIV invades and attacks the white blood cells of the body. White blood cells are the soldiers of the body, responsible for our defence against different infections. The specific white blood cells that HIV infects first are the T-helper cells which also take the terms CD4 cells, CD4+ T cells, a subset of T cells, etc. CD4 cells primarily act as a warning device of the body that an infection is taking place.

When a person is suspected as an HIV patient, a test for CD4 cells tells the doctor whether the infection is advanced or not. Based on the normal count of CD4 cells of the patient being 500 to 1600 cells/mm3, you can tell if the spread of HIV is highly developed or still in its early stages. AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), an advanced stage of HIV, entails a test finding of CD4 cells lower than 200 cells/mm3.


How does HIV Transmit in the Body?

This is the basic pathway of HIV. The virus can get inside the body through our bodily fluids, particularly blood, semen for men, vaginal fluid for women, and even breast milk from infected mothers.

Since the virus targets the body’s immune system, its first victim or host cell would be the T-helper cells (CD4 cells). It attaches and invades these white blood cells and takes control of the cell overall. Once the virus manages to infiltrate the DNA of the CD4 cells, it can now replicate and make copies of the infected CD4 cells, spreading it all over the body via your bloodstream.

The CD4 cells are then destroyed, and the HIV that rides on the host cell then takes over the duplication and spread of the virus. If left untreated, your CD4 cell count goes down to severely low levels, indicating the advancement of your HIV infection to AIDS.


HIV Progression

One can categorize HIV infection into 3 – acute, chronic, and the advanced stage called AIDS.


Acute HIV: Stage 1

outlook and treatment of HIV patientsAcute HIV happens a few days or weeks following the contraction or exposure to the virus. Because the body has yet to identify any problem in the beginning, the virus silently but aggressively multiplies in the body, taking over and destroying the healthy host cell or your CD4 cells, and lowering the body’s immune system.

In the acute phase of HIV, you may feel feverish and other symptoms that may indicate infection, like headache, rashes, swollen lymph nodes (lymphadenitis), and body pain or weakness. If you are unaware of your exposure to the virus, it will be difficult for you to deduce that your symptoms are indicative of HIV.  The said symptoms are too broad; several diseases and infections show the same during their incubation and acute phases.

This phase also makes it easier for HIV to spread from one person to another, as the patient is still oblivious to his exposure to the virus.


Chronic HIV: Stage 2

As the virus spreads quickly in the beginning, there will come a time that the replication of the damaged host cells (CD4 cells) becomes minimal. Doctors call This the virus’ latent stage. The patient feels fewer symptoms, but they can still have a viral load or detection of HIV in the blood.

Once a doctor assesses the patient to have HIV, treatment starts at once. The aggression of the treatment makes it possible for the HIV infection to delay and prevent its advancement to AIDS.


AIDS: Stage 3

We have mentioned many times that AIDS is the advanced stage of HIV. Therefore, logically, not all HIV infection is AIDS, but all AIDS is HIV. Patients diagnosed with AIDS may be HIV patients who failed to get diagnosed earlier. They are also the ones who may become vulnerable to HIV opportunistic infections (OIs). These infections attack the body when the immune system is really low.

If you can still remember, HIV primarily targets white blood cells called CD4 cells, making our immune system low. As the CD4 count reaches or goes below 200 cells/mm3, AIDS takes over. And, if you have untreated AIDS, you get a higher chance of being affected by the OIs, like sexually-transmitted diseases (candidiasis, herpes), tuberculosis, pneumonia, toxoplasmosis, and many more.


Treatment of HIV

antiretroviral therapy for HIVAntiretroviral drugs are the main treatment regimen doctors turn to in order to fight HIV. When HIV first made its debut in the medical world, only one type of antiretroviral therapy existed. Now, the US FDA has nearly 50 different brands of medications that can fight HIV and AIDS.

The doctor considers factors related to your condition so he can choose the right regimen specifically for your case. Knowing the patient’s health history, HIV level, viral load, and allergies can affect the effectiveness of the treatment. Once the doctor determines a shortlist of possible treatment approaches available for you, he asks for your decision, stating the possible side effects, cost, and treatment period of each.

HIV and AIDS were interchangeable terms back then because, by the time the virus gets detected in the body, it has already reached its advanced stage (AIDS).  But with the medications and therapeutic approaches that can aggressively manage the viral infection, HIV patients can now have longer and safer lives. They may feel at ease that they will not experience severe symptoms, Moreover the virus invading their body may not transmit to other people close to them.


Outlook on HIV

For those of you who fear HIV even more, now that we describe how the virus enters the body, do not fret. Why? Because, thanks to modern science and technology as well as the awareness that the whole world is giving HIV and AIDS, there are now advancements made in the treatments of the virus so a patient infected with it can a. live longer, and b. slow down the progress of the disease.

There is advanced antiretroviral therapy, the term used to describe HIV or AIDS treatment. It is a combination of four drugs that target the virus in different stages of its development, making the treatment potent.


Read more about HIV and AIDS from our reading resources:

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Which Specific Cells are Infected by the HIV Virus?
Much has been said about HIV... Do you know which specific cells are infected by the HIV virus? When reading about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, we pay more attention to what preventive measures we can take rather than technical aspects of the virus.