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HIV Overview

The HIV Life Cycle

(Last updated 10/16/2013; last reviewed 10/16/2013)

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Key Points

  • HIV gradually destroys the immune system by attacking and killing CD4 cells. CD4 cells are a type of white blood cell that plays a major role in protecting the body from infection.
  • HIV uses the machinery of the CD4 cells to multiply (make copies of itself) and spread throughout the body. This process is called the HIV life cycle. HIV medicines protect the immune system by blocking HIV at different stages of the HIV life cycle.
  • Antiretroviral therapy (ART) involves taking a combination of HIV medicines from at least two different HIV drug classes every day. Because HIV medicines in different drug classes block HIV at different stages of the HIV life cycle, ART is highly effective in reducing the amount of HIV in a person’s body (HIV viral load). ART also reduces the risk of HIV drug resistance.
  • ART can’t cure HIV, but it does protect the immune system, which helps people with HIV live longer, healthier lives.

Once a person is infected with HIV, the virus begins to attack and destroy the CD4 cells of the immune system. CD4 cells are a type of white blood cell that plays a major role in protecting the body from infection. HIV uses the machinery of the CD4 cells to multiply (make copies of itself) and spread throughout the body. This process is called the HIV life cycle.

What is the connection between HIV medicines and the HIV life cycle?

Without treatment, HIV infection gradually destroys the immune system and advances to AIDS. HIV medicines protect the immune system by blocking HIV at different stages of the HIV life cycle.

HIV medicines are grouped into different drug classes according to how they fight HIV. Each class of drugs attacks HIV at a different stage of the HIV life cycle. Standard HIV treatment (also called antiretroviral therapy or ART) involves taking a combination of HIV medicines from at least two different HIV drug classes every day. Because HIV medicines in different drug classes block HIV at different stages of the HIV life cycle, ART is highly effective in reducing the amount of HIV in a person’s body (HIV viral load). ART also reduces the risk of HIV drug resistance.

What is HIV drug resistance?

Drug resistance is when HIV is no longer suppressed by HIV medicines that previously prevented the virus from multiplying.

Drug resistance can develop as HIV multiplies in the body. When HIV multiplies, the virus sometimes mutates (changes form) and makes variations of itself. Variations of HIV that develop while a person is taking HIV medicines can lead to new, drug-resistant strains of HIV. The drug-resistant HIV no longer responds to the HIV medicines that used to effectively suppress a person’s strain of HIV. In other words, the person’s HIV continues to multiply.

Once drug-resistant HIV develops, it remains in the body. Drug resistance limits the number of HIV medicines available to include in an HIV regimen.  

Because ART prevents HIV from multiplying at different stages of the HIV life cycle, the virus has fewer chances to mutate and produce new, drug-resistant HIV.

Can ART cure HIV?

ART can’t cure HIV, but by blocking HIV at different stages of the HIV life cycle, ART protects the immune system. A healthier immune system helps people with HIV live longer, healthier lives.

What are the stages of the HIV life cycle?


To understand the HIV life cycle, it helps to first imagine what HIV looks like.

HIV virus image

Now you are ready to follow HIV as it attacks a CD4 cell. The image below shows each stage of the HIV life cycle. 

HIV Life Cycle Image

How can I learn more about the HIV life cycle?

Read information from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) on how HIV causes AIDS. This fact sheet is based on this information.