1. Health
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy

A Very Serious Opportunistic Infection


Updated June 26, 2014

HIV can damage your immune system. That much is clear. As HIV becomes more active and makes more copies, that damage becomes more severe, thus you become more and more at risk for developing opportunistic infections (OIs); those infections that can make you sick. One of the most serious and potentially devastating of these OI's is Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy or PML.

What Does HIV Do To Your Body?

What is PML?

We call it PML because frankly Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy is quite a mouth full. But by breaking down that long name we can get some idea of what the condition is.
    "encephalo" means brain

    "pathy" means disease.

    Therefore "encephalopathy" means a disease of the brain.

    Finally, "leuko" means white.

    When you put the three parts together "leukoencephalopathy" means a disease of the white matter in the brain.

But what does that mean? Simply put, PML is a serious progressive viral opportunistic infection of the brain's white matter. The virus responsible for PML is one that most everyone has been exposed to; the JC virus. In people with undamaged immune systems, the JC virus is harmless. However, in people with damaged immune systems, such as people living with HIV, the JC virus can cause serious infections, in this case PML.

Opportunistic Infection Fact Sheets

How Do I Know I Have PML?

Unfortunately, the signs and symptoms of PML can resemble many other conditions. Initially, the only sign of trouble may be:
  • subtle weakness in the hands or legs
  • difficulty thinking or concentrating
  • a lack of coordination
Often times, people mistake these for medication side effects or fatigue. As the PML progresses, more serious symptoms include:
  • headaches
  • speech and vison changes
  • seizures
If left untreated, PML is most often fatal within a few months. PML can be diagnosed in two ways; by examining the spinal fluid by way of lumbar puncture (spinal tap) or by an Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

Is There Treatment for PML?

Prior to the emergence of antiretroviral therapy, PML was always fatal within a few weeks or months. No proven treatment has been developed but significant improvement has been seen in people taking HIV medications.

HIV Medication Fact Sheets

What if I Have Symptoms of PML?

PML progresses rapidly so early treatment is essential to a good prognosis and diminishing damage to your brain. If you develop any of the symptoms discussed above, notify your doctor immediately.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.