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HIV/AIDS and Skin Conditions

Skin conditions are common in people with HIV/AIDS. Many, like Kaposi sarcoma, are caused by germs that take advantage of a weakened immune system. That's why they are called opportunistic infections. Others, such as photodermatitis, may be linked to inflammation caused by an overactive immune system as it revives during antiretroviral medicine therapy or from the medicines themselves.

Here are some of the more common skin conditions related to HIV/AIDS.

Molluscum contagiosum

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

The bumps are often harmless. But they won't go away without treatment if your HIV has worsened to AIDS. Antiretroviral therapy raises your CD4 lymphocyte count (also called T cell count). This may help to improve the lesions. Your healthcare provider may also recommend freezing off the bumps with liquid nitrogen (cryosurgery) or destroying them with a laser or topical ointment. The treatment will often need to be repeated until they're gone.

Herpes viruses

Several types of herpes viruses are common in people with AIDS. Herpes simplex viral infections cause an outbreak of sores around the genital area or the mouth. Varicella zoster viral infection is the virus that causes chickenpox. It can come out later in life as shingles. This is sometimes a very painful blistering rash on one side of the body.

Herpes viral infections are often treated with antiviral medicines. Nearly all herpes viruses can become "latent." This means that even after the infection seems to clear, the virus stays in the body. It can cause a new infection later on. 

Kaposi sarcoma

This is a type of cancer. It starts in the cells that line the lymph or blood vessels. Kaposi sarcoma causes dark lesions on the skin. These may appear as brown, purple, or red patches or nodules. Kaposi sarcoma may also cause the skin to swell. The lesions can affect organs, too, such as the lungs, liver, and parts of the digestive tract. They can cause potentially life-threatening symptoms and breathing problems.

This skin condition often only happens when your T cell count is very low. This means that your immune system is severely weakened. This condition is characteristic of AIDS. When someone with HIV gets Kaposi sarcoma or any other opportunistic infection, he or she is diagnosed with AIDS. Highly active antiretroviral medicines have greatly reduced the incidence of Kaposi sarcoma. They can help treat it if it develops. This cancer also often 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 look hairy. It is more common in people with AIDS who have a very weak immune system. Oral hairy leukoplakia doesn't need specific treatment. But taking antiretroviral medicines can improve your immune system and help to clear up the infection.


Oral candidiasis is also known as thrush. It is a fungal infection that causes a thick white layer to form on the tongue or inner cheeks. Thrush can be managed with antifungal medicines, mouth lozenges, and mouth rinses. It is quite common in people with HIV/AIDS. It can be hard to treat. The infection tends to come back. Taking effective HIV medicine often improves this condition. 


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 prone to it. If you're taking medicines to improve immune strength, you may have this reaction for a short time as a side effect. Protecting the skin from the sun can often 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 in people with very weak immune systems and among people of color with HIV/AIDS. Using topical steroid treatment (lotions or creams put right on the skin) and taking antiretroviral medicines are used to treat the condition.

Antiretroviral medicines can help prevent and manage most of these types of skin conditions. Other skin conditions may be triggered by the treatment and require other treatments. Talk with your healthcare provider about the best therapy for your specific skin condition. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2019
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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