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Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection in Children


Geoffrey A. Weinberg

, MD, Golisano Children’s Hospital

Full review/revision May 2020 | Modified Sep 2022
Topic Resources

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection is a viral infection that progressively destroys certain white blood cells and causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection is caused by the viruses HIV-1 and HIV-2 and, in young children, is typically acquired from the mother at the time of birth.

  • Signs of infection include slowed growth, enlargement of lymph nodes in several areas of the body, developmental delay, recurring bacterial infections, and lung inflammation.

  • The diagnosis is based on special blood tests.

  • Children who receive anti-HIV drug therapy (called antiretroviral therapy or ART) can live to adulthood.

  • Infected mothers can prevent transmitting the infection to their newborn by taking antiretroviral therapy, feeding their newborn formula rather than breast milk, and, for some women, undergoing a cesarean delivery.

  • Children are treated with the same drugs as adults.

There are two human immunodeficiency viruses:

  • HIV-1

  • HIV-2

Infection with HIV-1 is by far more common than infection with HIV-2 in almost all geographic areas. Both progressively destroy certain types of white blood cells called lymphocytes Lymphocytes One of the body's lines of defense ( immune system) involves white blood cells (leukocytes) that travel through the bloodstream and into tissues, searching for and attacking microorganisms and... read more Lymphocytes , which are an important part of the body's immune defenses. When these lymphocytes are destroyed, the body becomes susceptible to attack by many other infectious organisms. Many of the symptoms and complications of HIV infection, including death, are the result of these other infections and not of the HIV infection itself. HIV infection may lead to various troublesome infections with organisms that do not ordinarily infect healthy people. These are called opportunistic infections because they take advantage of a weakened immune system. Opportunistic infections may result from viruses, parasites, fungi, and, perhaps more often than in adults, sometimes bacteria.

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the most severe form of HIV infection. A child with HIV infection is considered to have AIDS when at least one complicating illness develops or when there is a significant decline in the body's ability to defend itself from infection.

Only about 1% of the people infected with HIV in the United States have been diagnosed as children or young adolescents. HIV infection in children has now become rare, because of greater testing and treatment of pregnant women infected with HIV. Although about 9,000 cases of HIV infection were reported in children and young adolescents between 1983 and 2015, in 2018, fewer than 100 new cases were diagnosed in children under 13 years of age.

Although the number of HIV-infected infants and children living in the United States continues to decrease, the number of HIV-infected adolescents and young adults is increasing. The number is increasing because children who were infected as infants are surviving longer and new cases are developing in adolescents and young adults, particularly in young men who have sex with men.

Worldwide, HIV is a much more common problem among children. About 1.7 million children have HIV infection. Each year, about 160,000 more children are infected and about 100,000 children die. In the past few years, new programs created to deliver antiretroviral therapy (ART) to pregnant women and children have reduced the annual number of new childhood infections and childhood deaths by 33 to 50%. However, infected children still do not receive ART nearly as often as adults.

Transmission of HIV Infection

Young children

HIV is most commonly transmitted to children by

  • An infected mother before birth or during birth

  • After birth through the mother's milk

In young children, HIV infection is nearly always acquired from the mother. More than 95% of HIV-infected children in the United States acquired the infection from their mother, either before or around the time of birth (called vertical transmission or mother-to-child transmission). Most of the remaining children now living with AIDS acquired the infection from sexual activity, including, rarely, sexual abuse. Because of improved safety measures regarding screening of blood and blood products, in recent years almost no infections have resulted from the use of blood and blood products in the United States, Canada, or Western Europe.

Experts are not sure how many HIV-infected women give birth each year in the United States, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate is about 5,000. Without preventive measures, 25 to 33% of them would transmit the infection to their baby. Transmission often takes place during labor and delivery.

The risk of transmission is highest among mothers who

  • Acquire HIV infection during pregnancy or while breastfeeding

  • Are severely ill

  • Have more virus in their body

However, transmission has declined significantly in the United States from about 25% in 1991 to less than 1% in 2018. Mother-to-child transmission has been reduced because of an intensive effort to test and treat infected pregnant women during both pregnancy and delivery.

Did You Know...

  • In the United States, transmission of HIV from an infected mother to her child has declined from about 25% in 1991 to less than 1% in 2018.

The virus also can be transmitted in breast milk. About 12 to 14% of infants not infected at birth acquire HIV infection if they breastfeed from an HIV-infected mother. Most often, transmission occurs in the first few weeks or months of life but may occur later. Transmission by breastfeeding is more likely in mothers who have a high level of virus in their body, including those who acquired the infection during the time period in which they were breastfeeding their infant.


  • Having unprotected sexual intercourse

  • Sharing infected needles

Heterosexual and homosexual adolescents are at increased risk of HIV infection if they have unprotected sex. Adolescents who share infected needles while injecting drugs are also at increased risk.

In very rare cases, HIV has been transmitted by contact with infected blood on the skin. In almost all such cases, the skin surface was broken by scrapes or open sores. Although saliva may contain the virus, transmission of infection by coughing, kissing, or biting has never been confirmed.

HIV is not transmitted through

  • Food

  • Water

  • Household articles

  • Social contact in a home, workplace, or school

Symptoms of HIV Infection in Children

Children born with HIV infection rarely have symptoms for the first few months even if they have not received antiretroviral therapy (ART). If the children remain untreated, only about 20% develop problems during the first or second year of life. Such children probably became infected well before birth. For the remaining 80% of untreated children, problems may not appear until age 3 or even after age 5. Such children probably became infected at or near birth.

Untreated HIV-infected children

Common symptoms of HIV infection in untreated children include

  • Slowed growth and a delay of maturation

  • Enlargement of lymph nodes in several areas of the body

  • Recurring diarrhea

  • Lung infections

  • Enlargement of the spleen or liver

  • Fungal infection of the mouth (thrush)

Sometimes children have repeated episodes of bacterial infections, such as a middle ear infection (otitis media), sinusitis, bacteria in the blood (bacteremia), or pneumonia.

A variety of symptoms and complications can appear as the child's immune system deteriorates. About one third of HIV-infected children develop lung inflammation (lymphoid interstitial pneumonitis), with cough and difficulty breathing.

Children born with HIV infection commonly have at least one episode of Pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia ( see Pneumonia in Immunocompromised People Pneumonia in Immunocompromised People Pneumonia is infection of the lungs. Pneumonia in people whose immune system is weakened or impaired (for example, by acquired immunodeficiency syndrome [AIDS], cancer, organ transplantation... read more ). This serious opportunistic infection can occur as early as 4 to 6 weeks of age but occurs mostly in infants 3 to 6 months of age who acquired HIV infection before or at birth. More than half of untreated children infected with HIV develop the pneumonia at some time. Pneumocystis pneumonia is a major cause of death among children and adults with AIDS.

In a significant number of HIV-infected children, progressive brain damage prevents or delays developmental milestones, such as walking and talking. These children also may have impaired intelligence and a head that is small in relation to their body size. Up to 20% of untreated infected children progressively lose social and language skills and muscle control. They may become partially paralyzed or unsteady on their feet, or their muscles may become somewhat rigid.

Anemia Overview of Anemia Anemia is a condition in which the number of red blood cells is low. Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, a protein that enables them to carry oxygen from the lungs and deliver it to all parts... read more (a low red blood cell count) is common among HIV-infected children and causes them to become weak and tire easily. About 20% of untreated children develop heart problems, such as rapid or irregular heartbeat, or heart failure.

Treated HIV-infected children

With ART, children with HIV infection do not necessarily develop any symptoms of HIV infection. ART has significantly changed the way HIV infection manifests in children. Although bacterial pneumonia and other bacterial infections (such as bacteremia and recurring otitis media) occur slightly more often in HIV-infected children, opportunistic infections and growth failure are much less frequent than in the era before ART.

Although ART clearly lessens the effects of brain and spinal cord disorders, there seems to be an increased rate of behavioral, developmental, and cognitive problems in treated HIV-infected children. It is unclear whether these problems are caused by HIV infection itself, the drugs used to treat HIV, or other biologic, psychologic, and social factors that are common among HIV-infected children.

Because ART has allowed children and adults to survive for many years, more people are developing long-term complications of HIV infection. These complications include obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease. These complications appear to be related both to HIV infection itself and to the effects of certain ART drugs.

Diagnosis of HIV Infection in Children

  • Prenatal screening

  • Blood tests

  • After diagnosis, frequent monitoring

The diagnosis of HIV infection in children begins with the identification of HIV infection in pregnant women through routine prenatal screening of blood. Rapid tests for HIV can be done while women are in labor and delivery suites at the hospital. These tests can provide results in minutes to hours.

Children over 18 months of age and adolescents

For children older than 18 months and adolescents, the same blood tests offered for diagnosis of HIV infection in adults may be used. These are usually blood tests that are done to look for HIV antibodies and antigens. (Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system to help defend the body against attack, and antigens are substances that can trigger an immune response in the body—see Tests That Detect Antibodies to or Antigens of Microorganisms Tests That Detect Antibodies to or Antigens of Microorganisms Infectious diseases are caused by microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Doctors suspect an infection based on the person's symptoms, physical examination results,... read more .)

Children under 18 months of age

For children under 18 months of age, standard adult blood tests for HIV antibodies or antigens are not helpful, because the blood of an infant born to an HIV-infected mother almost always contains HIV antibodies passed through the placenta even if the infant is not infected. So, to definitively diagnose HIV infection in children under 18 months of age, special blood tests called nucleic acid amplification tests (NATs) are done. These tests detect genetic material (DNA or RNA) using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) Genetic diagnostic technologies are scientific methods that are used to understand and evaluate an organism's genes. (See also Genes and Chromosomes.) Genes are segments of deoxyribonucleic... read more tests. The diagnosis of HIV infection is confirmed if the NATs detect genetic material from HIV in the child's blood.

Testing using NATs should be done at frequent intervals, typically in the first 2 weeks of life, at about 1 month of age, and between 4 months and 6 months of age. Such frequent testing identifies most HIV-infected infants by 6 months of age. Some infants who have a very high risk of developing HIV may be tested more frequently.

All infants should be tested if they are born to mothers who

  • Have HIV infection

  • Are at risk of HIV infection


The CD4 count decreases as HIV infection worsens. If the CD4 count is low, children are more likely to develop serious infections and other complications of HIV, such as certain cancers.

The viral load increases as HIV infection worsens. Viral load helps predict how fast the CD4 count is likely to decrease over the next few years.

The CD4 count and viral load help doctors determine how soon to start antiretroviral drugs, what effects treatment is likely to have, and whether other drugs may be needed to prevent complicating infections.

Prognosis of HIV Infection in Children

Before antiretroviral therapy (ART), 10 to 15% of children from industrialized countries and perhaps 50 to 80% of children from developing countries died before 4 years of age. Today, with ART, most children born with HIV infection live well into adulthood. Increasing numbers of these young adults who were infected at birth have given birth to or fathered their own children.

Nevertheless, if opportunistic infections occur, particularly Pneumocystis pneumonia, the prognosis is poor unless ART is successful. Pneumocystis pneumonia causes death in 5 to 40% of treated children and in almost 100% of untreated children. The prognosis is also poor for children in whom the virus is detected early (within the first week of life) or who develop symptoms in the first year of life.

It is unknown whether HIV infection itself or ART given to HIV-infected children during critical periods of growth and development will cause additional side effects that appear later in life. However, so far, no such side effects have been noted in children infected at or before birth who were treated with ART and who are now young adults.

Because of the way HIV remains hidden within people's cells, drugs do not completely eliminate the virus from the body. Even when tests do not detect the virus, some viruses remain within cells. In one instance, a child who was born to an untreated, HIV-infected mother was given high doses of ART. Although the ART was unintentionally interrupted when the child was 15 months of age, at 24 months of age, doctors were still not able to detect reproducing (replicating) HIV in the child. However, doctors were able to detect the virus later. Research studies are underway to find out whether giving high doses of ART to suppress the virus, even if only for a short time, leads to better health. Doctors do recommend that people do not interrupt their ART.

To date, there is no cure for HIV infection, and it is not yet known if a cure is possible. What is known, however, is that HIV infection is a treatable infection and that long-term survival is possible if effective ART is given.

Prevention of HIV Infection in Children

Prevention of transmission for infected mothers

Current preventive therapy for infected pregnant women is highly effective at minimizing transmission. HIV-infected pregnant women should begin antiretroviral therapy (ART) by mouth. Ideally, ART should begin as soon as HIV infection is diagnosed and women are ready to follow the therapy as directed. HIV-infected pregnant women who are already on ART should continue the therapy throughout the pregnancy. HIV-infected women should also continue ART when trying to get pregnant.

In addition to maternal ART, the antiretroviral drug zidovudine (ZDV) is often given by vein (intravenously) during labor and delivery to the mother. ZDV is then given to the HIV-exposed newborn by mouth twice a day for the first 4 to 6 weeks of life (sometimes along with additional antiviral drugs for certain newborns at greater risk of acquiring HIV infection). Treatment of mothers and children in this way reduces the rate of transmission from 25% to 1% or less. Also, cesarean delivery Cesarean Delivery Cesarean delivery is surgical delivery of a baby by incision through a woman’s abdomen and uterus. In the United States, up to 30% of deliveries are cesarean. Doctors use a cesarean delivery... read more Cesarean Delivery (c-section) done before labor begins may reduce the newborn's risk of acquiring HIV infection. Doctors may recommend cesarean delivery for women whose infection was not well controlled by ART. After delivery, ART is continued for all HIV-infected women.

In countries where good infant formulas and clean water are readily available, HIV-infected mothers should bottle-feed formula to their infants and should be advised never to breastfeed their infants or donate their breast milk to milk banks. In countries where the risks of undernutrition or infectious diarrhea resulting from using unclean water to feed infants or prepare formula are high, the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risk of HIV transmission. In these developing countries, HIV-infected mothers should continue to breastfeed for the first 6 months of the infant's life and then rapidly wean the infant to food. Often their infants are given ART throughout the period of breastfeeding. HIV-infected mothers should not prechew (premasticate) food for infants.

Prevention of transmission for children

Because a child's HIV status may not be known, all schools and day care centers should adopt special procedures for handling accidents, such as nosebleeds, and for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces contaminated with blood. During cleanup, personnel are advised to avoid having their skin come in contact with blood. Latex gloves should be routinely available, and hands should be washed after the gloves are removed. Contaminated surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected with a freshly prepared bleach solution containing 1 part of household bleach to 10 to 100 parts of water. These practices (called universal precautions) are followed not only for children with HIV infection but for all children and in all situations involving blood.

Prevention of transmission for adolescents

Preventive treatment before exposure

Taking an antiretroviral drug before being exposed to HIV can reduce the risk of HIV infection. Such preventive treatment is called preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is most effective if people take the drug every day, but it can be expensive. PrEP is now recommended for people who have a high risk of becoming infected, such as people who have a partner who is infected with HIV, men who have sex with men, and transgender people. Older adolescents at risk may also receive PrEP, but issues of confidentiality and cost are more complex than with adult PrEP.

Prevention of opportunistic infections

To prevent Pneumocystis pneumonia Pneumonia in Immunocompromised People Pneumonia is infection of the lungs. Pneumonia in people whose immune system is weakened or impaired (for example, by acquired immunodeficiency syndrome [AIDS], cancer, organ transplantation... read more , doctors give trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole to certain children with proven HIV infection and a significantly impaired immune system and to all infants who were born to HIV-infected women beginning at 4 to 6 weeks of age (continued until testing shows the infants are not infected). Children who cannot tolerate trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole can be given dapsone, atovaquone, or pentamidine.

Children with a significantly impaired immune system also are given azithromycin or clarithromycin to prevent Mycobacterium avium complex infection. Rifabutin is an alternative drug.

Treatment of HIV Infection in Children

  • Drugs

  • Ongoing monitoring

  • Encouraging adherence to treatment

Drug treatment

All children with HIV infection should be given antiretroviral therapy (ART) as soon as possible, ideally within 1 to 2 weeks of diagnosis. Children are treated with most of the same antiretroviral drugs as adults ( see Drug Treatment of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection Drug Treatment of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection Antiretroviral drugs used to treat human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection aim to do the following: Reduce the amount of HIV RNA (viral load) in the blood to an undetectable amount Restore... read more ), typically an ART combination consisting of the following:

  • Two nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) plus

  • A protease inhibitor or an integrase inhibitor

Rarely, a nonnucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor is given with two NRTIs.

However, not all of the drugs used for older children, adolescents, and adults are available to young children, in part because some are not available in liquid form.

In general, children develop the same types of side effects as adults but usually at a much lower rate. However, the side effects of drugs may also limit the treatment.


Increased numbers of virus in the blood may be a sign that the virus is developing resistance to the drugs or that the child is not taking the drugs. In either case, the doctor may need to change the drugs. To monitor a child's progress, the doctor examines the child and does blood tests on the child at 3- to 4-month intervals. Other blood tests and urine tests are done at 6- to 12-month intervals.


Adherence (taking drug therapy as directed) to prescribed ART dosing schedules is extremely important. If children take ART drugs less often than they are supposed to, the HIV in their system can rapidly become permanently resistant to one or more of the drugs. Yet, it may be difficult for parents and children to follow and adhere to complicated drug regimens, which can limit the effectiveness of therapy. To simplify regimens and improve adherence, tablets containing three or more drugs may be given. These tablets may need to be taken only once or twice a day. The liquid forms of drugs are now better-tasting, which may improve adherence.

Adherence to ART may be more difficult for adolescents than for younger children. Adolescents also have difficulty adhering to treatment regimens for other chronic diseases such as diabetes and asthma. Adolescents want to be like their peers and can feel set apart by their illness. Skipping or stopping treatment may be a way for them to deny having an illness. Additional issues that may complicate treatment and reduce adherence in adolescents include

  • Low self-esteem

  • A chaotic and unstructured lifestyle

  • Fear of being singled out because of illness

  • Sometimes a lack of family support

In addition, adolescents may not be able to understand why drugs are necessary when they do not feel ill and they may worry greatly about side effects. Despite frequent contact with a pediatric health care team, adolescents who have been infected since birth may fear or deny their HIV infection or distrust information provided by the health care team. Instead of directly confronting adolescents who have poor support systems about the need to take their drugs, care teams sometimes help the adolescent focus on practical matters such as how to avoid opportunistic infections and how to obtain information about reproductive health services, housing, and succeeding in school (see Transition to Adult Care Transition to Adult Care Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection is a viral infection that progressively destroys certain white blood cells and causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Human immunodeficiency... read more ).


Some vaccines containing live bacteria, such as bacille Calmette-Guérin (which is used to prevent tuberculosis in some countries outside the United States), or live viruses, such as the oral polio virus, varicella, and measles-mumps-rubella, can cause a severe or fatal illness in children with HIV whose immune system is very impaired. However, the live measles-mumps-rubella vaccine Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccine The measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is a combination vaccine that helps protect against these three serious viral infections. The vaccine contains live but weakened measles, mumps... read more and live varicella vaccine Varicella Vaccine The varicella vaccine helps protect against chickenpox (varicella), a very contagious infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It causes an itchy rash that looks like small blisters with... read more are recommended for children with HIV infection whose immune system is not severely impaired.

Yearly inactivated (not live) influenza immunization Influenza Vaccine The influenza virus vaccine helps protect against influenza. Two types of influenza virus, type A and type B, regularly cause seasonal epidemics of influenza in the United States. There are... read more is also recommended for all HIV-infected children over 6 months of age, and inactivated or live immunization is recommended for household members.

However, the effectiveness of any vaccination is less in children with HIV infection. HIV-infected children with very low CD4+ cell counts are considered susceptible to vaccine-preventable diseases when they are exposed to one (such as measles, tetanus, or varicella) regardless of whether they have received the vaccine for that disease and may be given immune globulin by vein (intravenously). Intravenous immune globulin or immediate vaccination with measles-mumps-rubella vaccine also should be considered for any nonimmunized household member who is exposed to measles.

Social issues

For children who need foster care, child care, or schooling, a doctor can help assess the child's risk of exposure to infectious diseases. In general, transmission of infections, such as chickenpox, to the HIV-infected child (or to any child with an impaired immune system) is more of a danger than is transmission of HIV from that child to others. However, a young child with HIV infection who has open skin sores or who engages in potentially dangerous behavior, such as biting, should not attend child care.

HIV-infected children should participate in as many routine childhood activities as their physical condition allows. Interaction with other children enhances social development and self-esteem. Because of the stigma associated with the illness, the routine use of universal precautions in schools and day care centers, and the fact that transmission of the infection to other children is extremely unlikely, there is no need for anyone other than the parents, the doctor, and perhaps the school nurse to be aware of the child's HIV status.

As a child's condition worsens, treatment is best given in the least restrictive environment possible. If home health care and social services are available, the child can spend more time at home rather than in a hospital.

Transition to Adult Care

Once they reach a certain age (typically 18 to 21 years), HIV-infected adolescents will transition from pediatric care to adult care. The adult health care model is quite different, and adolescents should not just be referred to an adult clinic or office without additional planning.

Pediatric health care tends to be family-centered, and the care team includes a multidisciplinary team of physicians, nurses, social workers, and mental health professionals. Adolescents infected at birth may have been cared for by such a team for their entire life. In contrast, the typical adult health care model tends to be individual-centered, and the health care practitioners involved may be located in separate offices requiring multiple visits. Health care practitioners at adult care clinics and offices are often managing high patient volumes, and the consequences of lateness or missed appointments (which may be more common among adolescents) are stricter.

Planning transition over several months and having adolescents have discussions or joint visits with the pediatric and adult health care practitioners can lead to a smoother and more successful transition. (See also the World Health Organization's transition resource).

More Information

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
Primsol, Proloprim, TRIMPEX
NebuPent, Pentam
Azasite, Zithromax, Zithromax Powder, Zithromax Single-Dose , Zithromax Tri-Pak, Zithromax Z-Pak, Zmax, Zmax Pediatric
Biaxin, Biaxin XL
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