HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system. This is the body's natural defense system.
A child can become infected with HIV if he or she is exposed to the virus. The virus destroys certain white blood cells. If too many are destroyed, the body has trouble fighting off disease.
The last stage of HIV infection is AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). But if your child has HIV, it doesn't mean that he or she has AIDS.
How do children get HIV?
Children can be exposed to the virus in several ways. If a pregnant woman has HIV, her baby can be exposed before and during birth. The virus can spread through breastfeeding too. Getting stuck with a needle that has the virus on it or having sexual contact can also expose children to the virus.
How is HIV diagnosed?
HIV is diagnosed with blood tests. If the virus is found, the test is positive. If HIV is not found (negative), your child may need a repeat test to be sure the results are correct.
Children who are at high risk of being infected with HIV are tested as early as possible. These children include:
- Newborn babies of mothers who had untreated HIV during pregnancy.
- Children of mothers with HIV.
- Children who are exposed to HIV after birth.
- Children who go to the doctor with HIV-like symptoms.
How is HIV treated?
The treatment for HIV is a mix of medicines. The course of treatment your doctor prescribes depends on several things. These include when and how your child was exposed to the HIV virus and whether or not the virus has already infected your child.
Doctors recommend that babies whose mothers have HIV be treated right away. Even when babies test negative for HIV at birth, they may have been exposed to the virus during the birth. Treatment can keep the baby from getting infected.
If your child has been exposed to HIV after birth, getting treated right away can help prevent the virus from taking hold and spreading in your child's body. This treatment is called post-exposure prevention (PEP).
If your child is already infected with HIV, treatment can reduce the amount of virus in your child's body. It can also help your child stay healthy. This treatment is called antiretroviral therapy (ART). Your child will need to take ART medicines for the rest of their life.
How do you care for your child who has HIV?
- Make sure that your child takes the medicines exactly as the doctor prescribes them. Do not skip doses. If the medicines aren't taken as prescribed, the HIV virus can be harder to treat. But children who take their medicines as directed have a good chance of living a long, healthy life.
- Talk with your doctor if you or your child has trouble with the medicines or the schedule for taking them. The doctor may be able to prescribe a medicine in a form that is easier for your child to take.
- Link taking the medicine with your child's daily routine. This can make staying with treatment easier. For example, have your child take the medicine with breakfast or before brushing teeth. You can also put the week's pills in a pillbox, post reminders on calendars, or use sticky notes. Try sending your child reminders as text messages. Or set smartphone alerts.
- Make sure that your child eats healthy foods, gets plenty of exercise, and has all recommended vaccines on schedule.
- Join a support group. These groups can be a good place to share information, tips, and feelings.
Current as of: October 31, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Peter Shalit MD, PhD - Internal Medicine