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What happens after a person gets HIV infection?

After acute HIV infection, your body works hard to attack the virus. With your body fighting, the virus can't make so many copies of itself. Even though you still have HIV infection, you'll begin to look well and feel well again. The usual blood tests will be normal.

However, during this time, the virus is still attacking your lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are the centers of your body's immune system. The virus may also attack your brain tissue and slowly cause damage there.

Over 10 to 15 years, HIV kills so many CD4 cells that your body can no longer fight off infections. At this point, you have AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Once you have AIDS, you can easily get many serious infections.

Does it help me to find out I have HIV at an early stage?

Yes. Right now, there is no cure for HIV infection. Your body can make antibodies and CD4 cells to slow down the progress of HIV, but they can't get rid of the virus. In fact, the very act of going after HIV may wear out your immune system in a short time.

However, treatment with HIV medicines (usually at least 3 at once) can hold down the virus and keep your body's immune system strong for a longer time. That's why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends early treatment of people with acute HIV syndrome.

What's in the future?

Combination drug therapy has changed HIV disease from the leading killer of young adults to a chronic disease that can be controlled for decades. However, even though you can take HIV medicines and feel OK, you could still give the virus to others through unsafe sex or blood exchanges. The medicines don't kill the virus--they just keep your immune system strong enough to prevent AIDS or slow it down.

New medicines are being developed and tested that can be taken less often and that are more powerful in holding back the virus. However, it may be a few years before these new drugs become available.