What Is It?
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) weakens the body's immune defenses by destroying CD4 (T-cell) lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. T-cells normally help guard the body against attacks by bacteria, viruses and other germs.
When HIV destroys CD4 cells, the body becomes vulnerable to many different types of infections. These infections are called "opportunistic" because usually they only have the opportunity to invade the body when the immune defenses are weak. HIV infection also increases the risk of certain cancers, illnesses of the brain and nerves, body wasting, and death.
The range of symptoms and illnesses that can happen when HIV infection severely weakens the body's immune defenses is called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS.