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What is AIDS Wasting Syndrome?

By Amanda Dean
Updated Jan 23, 2024
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AIDS wasting syndrome describes involuntary weight loss suffered by patients with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) as the disease progresses. Wasting may be caused by metabolic abnormalities, poor nutrition, elimination of nutrients through vomiting or diarrhea, or other infections. AIDS wasting syndrome is characterized by the loss of at least 10% of body mass after infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Patients may die of wasting even when their symptoms are otherwise controlled by medications.

Studies have shown that AIDS infection and its treatment affect metabolism. This can speed the progress of AIDS wasting syndrome. As the body fights the disease, it consumes calories more quickly than the body of an uninfected people. HIV infection also limits the body's natural ability to build proteins and process foods. People with HIV or AIDS should take in more nutrients and calories than they did prior to infection in order to maintain body mass.

Patients who suffer from AIDS wasting syndrome often have poor nutritional habits that relate to the infection. They may be unable or unwilling to cook healthy meals due to a lack of resources or depression. AIDS wasting syndrome may be exacerbated by poor appetite from illness or as a side effect of medication. Opportunistic infections that affect the digestive tract may make it difficult or painful to eat.

Even if a patient is consuming an adequate number of calories and nutrients, she may still suffer from AIDS wasting syndrome because of poor absorption of nutrients. This condition is often characterized by 30 days of diarrhea, which inhibits the body's ability to benefit from nutrition. The virus that causes AIDS can damage the stomach lining, which causes food intolerance or further absorption challenges. Some of the medications used to treat HIV and AIDS can inhibit nutrient absorption or cause diarrhea and vomiting.

Since AIDS wasting syndrome is a symptom of infection with various underlying causes, there is no single treatment for it. In most cases, doctors strive to use medications to control the progression of infection and symptoms. The treatment plan would include using medications to control diarrhea and opportunistic infections while maintaining body mass.

Patients with AIDS wasting syndrome may take medications to reduce nausea and vomiting, which in turn increases the amount of food the patient consumes. Doctors sometimes prescribe appetite stimulants, including medical marijuana, to increase food intake. Nutritional supplements or high-calorie beverages may add support to the daily diet of a patient with AIDS wasting syndrome.

Researchers have been developing treatments for metabolic abnormalities in AIDS patients. Treatment with human growth hormone shows promise for building lean muscle mass; however, it is cost-prohibitive for most patients. Progesterone can also be used to increase body mass, but it mainly encourages the growth of fat cells rather that lean body mass. Thalidomide and anabolic steroid treatments are also promising forms of treatment.

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