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HIV and Children

What are HIV and AIDS?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). HIV attacks the body's immune system. The immune system is the body's defense against infections. With time, HIV weakens your body’s ability to fight off serious infections and some cancers. When this happens, HIV infection becomes AIDS. AIDS can be life threatening, but it is also a preventable disease.

What is the cause?

HIV spreads from person to person when infected blood or sexual secretions, such as semen, enter the body. Men, women, and children of all ages can get HIV. You can get infected with HIV through:

  • Unsafe sex
  • Dirty needles
  • Transfusion of blood or blood products in countries where the blood is not carefully tested

HIV is not spread through the air, in food, or by casual social contact such as shaking hands or hugging.

What are the symptoms?

A baby born with HIV often has no signs of HIV infection at birth. When babies are 2 to 3 months old, they may start having problems such as:

  • Poor weight gain
  • Yeast infections that can cause constant diaper rash, and infections in the mouth and throat that make it hard to feed
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Swollen belly
  • Nervous system problems (having seizures or being slower to walk and talk than other children their age)

A child with HIV tends to get more infections, and get sicker than other children from common childhood infections like the flu.

Teens who get HIV may not have symptoms at the time of infection. It may take years for symptoms to show. During this time, they can pass on the virus without even knowing they have it. When symptoms start, they are usually the symptoms of the other diseases that are able to attack the body because of the infection, such as:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite or weight
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tiredness
  • Swollen glands
  • Sore throat
  • Sores on the skin or mouth
  • Repeated, severe infections in the mouth or vagina despite treatment for the infections
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Blurry vision or other problems with vision

Babies can get infected before or when they are born or from the breast milk of an infected mother.

How is it diagnosed?

HIV is diagnosed with blood tests.

How is it treated?

Medicines to treat HIV have changed several times in the past 20 years. Medicines are not a cure. They slow down the disease in an infected child, but the virus is always present. Your child may need to have lab tests every few weeks or months to see how the virus is affecting his or her body and how well the treatment is working. Treatment for HIV/AIDS may include treatment or prevention of other types of infections and tumors.

To work properly, anti-HIV drugs need to be taken at the right time and in the right way. This can be hard for children. Kids may not want to take bad-tasting medicines or may not want to take medicines in front of other people. Talking with healthcare providers and support groups can help.

Some immunizations may be different for babies or children with HIV/AIDS. Children whose immune systems are very weak will not be given live virus vaccines, such as measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), varicella (chickenpox), rotavirus, and certain flu (live virus) vaccines.

How can I help take care of my child?

If your child has HIV or AIDS, here are some things you can do to take care of your child and help prevent problems.

  • Discuss your child’s treatment with your child’s healthcare provider. Your child’s provider will work together with an infectious diseases expert.
  • Follow your child’s healthcare provider's instructions. Ask your provider:
    • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
    • How long it will take for your child to recover
    • What activities your child should avoid and when your child can return to normal activities
    • How to take care of your child at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them
  • Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent HIV infection of a baby during pregnancy?

Every pregnant woman should be tested for HIV. Women who are HIV positive should talk to their healthcare provider before getting pregnant. Pregnant women who are infected with HIV may be prescribed HIV-fighting drugs to help prevent spread of the virus to the baby. The risk of spreading the infection to the baby can also be lowered by delivering the baby by C-section instead of through the birth canal.

Babies born to HIV-infected mothers may be treated with antiviral drugs for at least the first 6 weeks of life to help prevent infection. Mothers with HIV should not breast-feed their babies. Giving formula instead of breast milk helps prevent spread of the virus to the baby.

You can get more information from:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-06-29
Last reviewed: 2012-06-11
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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