If CD4 cell levels drop below 200 cells per microliter of blood, the late symptomatic phase develops. This phase is characterized by the appearance of any of 26 opportunistic infections and rare cancers. The onset of these illnesses, sometimes referred to as AIDS-defining complications, is one sign that an HIV-infected person has developed full-blown AIDS. Without medical treatment, this stage may last from several months to years. The cumulative effects of these illnesses usually cause death.
Often the first opportunistic infection to develop is pneumocystis pneumonia, a lung infection caused by the fungus Pneumocystis carinii. This fungus infects most people in childhood, settling harmlessly in the lungs where it is prevented from causing disease by the immune system. But once the immune system becomes weakened, the fungus can block the lungs from delivering sufficient oxygen to the blood. The lack of oxygen leads to severe shortness of breath accompanied by fever and a dry cough.
In addition to pneumocystis pneumonia, people with AIDS often develop other fungal infections. Up to 23 percent of people with AIDS become infected with fungi from the genus Cryptococcus, which cause meningitis, inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain. Infection by the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum affects up to 10 percent of people with AIDS, causing general weight loss, fever, and respiratory complications.
Tuberculosis, a severe lung infection caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, typically becomes more severe in AIDS patients than in those with a healthy immune system. Between the 1950s and the late 1980s, tuberculosis was practically eradicated in North America. In the early 1990s, doctors became alarmed when incidence of the disease dramatically escalated. This resurgence has been attributed to the increased susceptibility to tuberculosis of people infected with HIV. Infection by the bacterium Mycobacterium avium can cause fever, anemia, and diarrhea. Other bacterial infections of the gastrointestinal tract contribute to wasting syndrome.
Opportunistic infections caused by viruses, especially members of the herpesvirus family, are common in people with AIDS. One of the herpesviruses, cytomegalovirus (CMV), infects the retina of the eye and can result in blindness. Another herpesvirus, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), may cause certain types of blood cancers. Infections with herpes simplex virus (HSV) types 1 or 2 may result in sores around the mouth, genital area, or anus.
Many people with AIDS develop cancers. The destruction of CD4 cells impairs the immune functions that halt the development of cancer. Kaposiís sarcoma is a cancer of blood vessels caused by a herpesvirus. This cancer produces purple lesions on the skin, which can spread to internal organs and cause death. B cell lymphoma affects certain cells of the lymphatic system that fight infection and perform other vital functions. Cervical cancer is more common in HIV-infected women than in women free from infection.
A variety of neurological disorders are common in the later stage of AIDS. Collectively called HIV-associated dementia, they develop when HIV or another microbial organism infects the brain. The infection produces degeneration of intellectual processes such as memory and, sometimes, problems with movement and coordination.