According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over one million people aged 13 and older were living with an HIV infection in the United States at the end of 2009. Gay and bisexual men make up nearly two-thirds of the 50,000 newly infected each year. Black/African American men and women are also greatly affected.
Early treatment is key to a long life, but some men experience no symptoms. Here are the signs to look for.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that affects the immune system, gradually damaging it until it can no longer fight off infection and disease. The HIV infects the cells of the immune system. However, for reasons that scientists don’t fully understand, HIV remains resistant to the immune system’s efforts to eliminate it.
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the term used to describe patients who are in the advanced stages of an HIV infection, when the immune system is no longer able to protect them from infections or cancer. The time between when a person is infected and when they develop illness may be anywhere from a few months to 10 years or longer.
There is currently no cure for HIV/AIDS, but drug therapy can prevent the virus from replicating, keeping it “in check” and preventing illness.
The earlier you can help the body fight HIV, the better. A study published in PLOS Medicine found that HIV-positive adults can have a near-normal life expectancy, provided they start treatment before their immune systems are compromised.
A 2011 study funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) also found that early treatment helped patients reduce their risk of passing the infection on to their partners.
How do you know you need treatment if you don’t know you have an HIV infection? This is a serious question, as studies have shown that the diagnosis is often missed. Research published in a 2008 issue of the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections found that only about half of men who went to a doctor with symptoms were diagnosed correctly. About half were told they had something else until they returned to the doctor a second or third time.
A CDC study published in 2006 also highlighted missed opportunities for earlier diagnosis of HIV infection, noting that 41 percent of patients were “late testers.” That is, they were diagnosed with AIDS within a year of being diagnosed with an HIV infection.
These studies indicate that you must watch out for your own health, be aware of the signs, and get tested immediately if you suspect you may have been infected.
According to the Mayo Clinic, most people who are infected with HIV will experience flu-like symptoms within two weeks to three months after the infection. That means you may have a fever, or suffer one or more of the following for a week or two:
- rash on the arms, legs, face, or belly
- sore throat
- swollen lymph glands
- mouth or genital ulcers
- bad headaches
- muscle aches and joint pain
- nausea and vomiting
- night sweats
HIV is tricky. In some people, it will create no symptoms of infection until the damage to the immune system has progressed. You may feel perfectly fine for months or years. Then, you may start suffering from a new infection or sickness that took hold because HIV weakened the immune system. This is why early testing—even when you feel fine—is so important.
Whether you have no symptoms after infection, or you suffer a flu-like episode, the virus will soon go into a “latency” phase. During this time, patients may have no symptoms until the immune system is sufficiently weakened or the disease has progressed to AIDS.
Common AIDS symptoms in men include:
- swollen lymph glands
- unusual lesions on the tongue; skin rashes and bumps
- nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- cough and shortness of breath
- chronic fatigue
- fever, chills, and night sweats
- rapid weight loss
- blurred or distorted vision
- other symptoms of infection or disease
If you notice any of the symptoms presented here, ask your doctor for an HIV test. It’s a simple blood test. You can even order a home HIV test kit online, using the FDA-approved OraQuick In-Home HIV Test, which doesn’t require you to send the sample to a lab. Simply test yourself and see results in 20 to 40 minutes.
A recent study indicates that for some people, early treatment can create a “functional cure,” allowing patients to live a healthy life without continued treatment.
You Asked, We Answered
- How soon should I get tested for HIV?- From our Facebook community
According to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all adults from ages 18 to 65 should be voluntarily screened for HIV, as you would be tested for any disease as a normal part of medical practice. If you are worried you've been exposed to the disease, you should see your healthcare provider right away. If tested, the CDC says that 97 percent of people will test positive for HIV within 3 months after exposure.- Mark R. LaFlamme, MD