Acute HIV infection is a condition that develops within two to four weeks after someone is infected with HIV. Acute HIV infection is also known as primary HIV infection or acute retroviral syndrome. It is the primary stage of infection and lasts until the body has created antibodies against HIV.
During this first stage of infection, the virus is duplicating at a rapid rate. Unlike other viruses, which the body's immune system can normally fight off, HIV can’t be eliminated by the immune system. This means the virus can live in your body for extended periods of time. As HIV progresses, the virus attacks and destroys immune cells, leaving the immune system unable to fight off other diseases and infections. When this happens, the HIV infection can lead to the development of AIDS.
Acute HIV is contagious. However, most people with acute HIV infection don’t even know they’re infected. This may be because they aren’t tested for HIV on a regular basis, or because standard HIV antibody tests aren’t always able to detect this stage of infection.
Acute HIV symptoms are similar to those of the flu and other viral illnesses, so people may not suspect that they are infected with HIV. In fact, more than 1.2 million people living with HIV don’t know they have the virus. Getting tested is the only way to know if you have been infected.
Symptoms of acute HIV infection include:
- sore throat
- night sweats
- loss of appetite
- ulcers that appear in the mouth, esophagus, or genitals
- swollen lymph nodes
- muscle aches
Many people with acute HIV infection don’t have any symptoms. However, if you do experience symptoms, they may last for a few days or up to four weeks.
Acute HIV infection occurs within two to four weeks after initial exposure to the virus. HIV is spread through:
- contaminated blood transfusions
- sharing syringes or needles with an infected person
- contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluids
- infected mothers passing the virus on to their baby during pregnancy or through breast-feeding
HIV is not spread through casual physical contact, such as hugging, holding hands, or sharing food utensils with an infected person.
Acute HIV infection doesn’t always develop into HIV or AIDS. In some people, an HIV infection may remain quiet for years or decades. Others may never develop advanced HIV or AIDS.
HIV can affect people of any age, race, or sexual orientation. However, certain groups may be more at risk for HIV. These include:
- people who inject drugs using needles and syringes
- men who have sex with men
Your primary care provider will perform a series of tests to check for HIV if the virus is suspected.
A standard HIV screening test won’t necessarily detect acute HIV infection. Many HIV screening tests look for antibodies to HIV rather than the virus itself. Antibodies are proteins that recognize and destroy harmful substances, such as viruses and bacteria. The presence of certain antibodies usually indicates a current infection. However, it can take several months after an initial infection for antibodies to appear, so diagnosis can be delayed.
Some tests that may be able to detect signs of acute HIV infection include:
- HIV RNA viral load
- p24 antigen blood test
- CD4 count
- blood differential
- HIV ELISA and Western blot tests
Proper treatment is crucial for people who are infected with HIV. Healthcare providers and scientists continue to debate whether early, aggressive treatment should be used for all people with HIV. Early treatment may minimize the effects of the virus on your immune system. However, HIV medications can have serious side effects when used for long-term treatment. It’s important to discuss all treatment options and potential side effects with your healthcare provider to determine which treatments are right for you.
In addition to medical treatment, your doctor may tell you to make certain lifestyle adjustments, including:
- eating a healthy, balanced diet to help strengthen your immune system
- practicing safe sex to decrease the risk of passing the virus on to others and to reduce your risk of getting sexually transmitted infections
- reducing stress, which can also weaken your immune system
- avoiding exposure to people with infections and viruses, since you may have a harder time fighting off disease
- exercising on a regular basis
- staying active and maintaining your hobbies
Over time, acute HIV infection can suppress your immune system. This may make you more susceptible to infections and other illnesses. This condition also increases your risk of developing certain types of cancer, such as lymphoma. Other possible complications include:
In some people, acute HIV infection will eventually lead to AIDS. This can be avoided if the condition is treated quickly and effectively.
There’s no cure for HIV, but you can still live a long, productive life if treatment is received promptly. The outlook is best for people who begin treatment before HIV has damaged their immune system.
With the right treatment, you can also help prevent HIV from developing into AIDs, improving both your life expectancy and quality of life. In most cases, HIV can be manageable over the long term even though it’s a chronic condition.
You can prevent acute HIV infection by avoiding exposure to potentially infectious fluids. These include blood, semen, and vaginal fluid. You can also reduce your risk of developing HIV by making smart choices.
- Always practice safe sex by using a condom with all of your sexual partners. You may be able to have unprotected sex if you’re in a monogamous relationship and if both you and your partner have tested negative for at least six months.
- Avoid intravenous drugs. Never share or reuse needles when injecting drugs into your body. Many cities have needle exchange programs that provide sterile needles.
- Take precautions. Always assume that blood might be infectious. Protect yourself by using latex gloves and other barriers.
- Get tested for HIV. Getting tested is the only way to know whether or not you have HIV. If you test positive for HIV, you can get treatment and take steps to reduce the risk of spreading the virus to others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend yearly testing for people who use intravenous drugs, people who are sexually active and have multiple partners, and people who have had sex with an infected individual.
Getting an HIV diagnosis can be devastating, so it’s important to have a strong support network that can help you deal with any stress and anxiety you may be feeling. You may want to speak with a counselor or join a support group where you can discuss your concerns with others who can relate to what you’re going through.