Health Library: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ

HIV/AIDS and Skin Conditions

Skin conditions are common in people with HIV/AIDS. Many, including Kaposi sarcoma, thrush, and herpes, are caused by germs that take advantage of a weakened immune system. That's why they are called "opportunistic" infections. Others, like photodermatitis, may be linked to inflammation caused by an overactive immune system as it revives during antiretroviral drug therapy.

Here are some of the most typical skin conditions related to HIV/AIDS.

Molluscum contagiosum

This is a highly contagious viral skin infection that may be passed from person to person through skin-to-skin contact, by sharing linens, or simply touching the same objects. Molluscum contagiosum causes pink or flesh-colored bumps on the skin. In people with HIV/AIDS, an outbreak of more than 100 bumps can occur.

Although the bumps are generally harmless, they won't disappear without treatment if you have AIDS. Your doctor may choose to freeze off the bumps with liquid nitrogen (cryosurgery) or destroy them with a laser or topical ointment. The treatment will generally be repeated every six weeks or so until they're gone.

Herpes viruses

Several types of herpes viruses are common in people with HIV/AIDS. Herpes simplex viral infections cause an outbreak of sores surrounding the genital area or the mouth. Herpes zoster viral infection is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. It can also result in shingles, an extremely painful blistering rash on one side of the body. Herpes viral infections can often be treated with antiviral medications.

Kaposi sarcoma

This is a type of cancer that originates inside the cells that line the lymph or blood vessels. Kaposi sarcoma causes dark lesions on the skin, which may appear as brown, purple, or red patches or nodules. Kaposi sarcoma may also cause the skin to swell. The lesions can affect organs, including the lungs, liver, and parts of the digestive tract, where it can cause potentially life-threatening symptoms and problems with breathing.

The skin condition typically only occurs when your white blood cell count is extremely low, meaning that your immune system is severely compromised. The condition is characteristic of AIDS, and when someone with HIV develops Kaposi sarcoma, the diagnosis changes to AIDS.  Highly active antiretroviral drugs have greatly reduced the incidence of Kaposi sarcoma and can help treat it if it develops. The cancer also generally responds to radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy.

Oral hairy leukoplakia

This is a viral infection that affects the mouth. It can cause thick, white lesions on the tongue that appear hairy. It is particularly common in people with HIV/AIDS who have an extremely weakened immune system. Oral hairy leukoplakia doesn't require specific treatment, but good management of HIV/AIDS with antiretroviral medications can improve your immune system and help to clear up the infection.

Thrush

Oral candidiasis, also known as thrush, is a fungal infection that causes a thick white layer to form on the tongue. Thrush can be managed with antifungal medications, mouth lozenges, and mouth rinses. It is quite common in people with HIV/AIDS and can be difficult to treat, because the infection tends to come back.

Photodermatitis

This is a skin condition in which the skin reacts to exposure to the sun by turning darker in color. It's most common in people of color, but anyone with HIV is susceptible to photodermatitis. If you're taking medications to improve immune strength, you may experience this reaction as a side effect. Protecting the skin from the sun is usually the strategy used to reduce photodermatitis.

Prurigo nodularis

This skin condition involves outbreaks of itchy, crusted lumps on the skin. The itching can be intense and severe. Prurigo nodularis is most common with extremely compromised immune systems, as well as among people of color with HIV/AIDS. Topical steroid treatment and managing HIV/AIDS with antiretroviral drugs are used to treat the condition.

Antiretroviral drugs can help prevent and manage some of these types of skin conditions. Other skin conditions may be triggered by the treatment and require other treatments. Talk with your doctor about the best therapy for your particular skin condition.