HIV is a virus that affects the immune system, specifically the CD4 cells. The CD4 cells help protect the body from illness. Unlike other viruses that the immune system can normally fight off, HIV can’t be eliminated by the immune system.
The symptoms of HIV can vary greatly from person to person. No two men with HIV will likely experience the exact same symptoms. However, an HIV infection in men will generally follow this pattern:
- acute illness
- asymptomatic period
- advanced infection
Approximately 80 percent of people who are infected with HIV experience flu-like symptoms within two to four weeks of becoming infected. This flu-like illness is known as acute HIV infection. It’s the primary stage of the infection and lasts until the body has created antibodies against the HIV virus.
The most common symptoms of acute HIV include:
- body rash
- sore throat
- severe headaches
Less common symptoms may include:
- swollen lymph nodes
- ulcers in the mouth or on the genitals
- muscle aches
- joint pain
- nausea and vomiting
- night sweats
Symptoms typically last 1 to 2 weeks. If you have several of these symptoms and suspect you may have been infected, schedule an appointment with your doctor and get tested.
After the initial symptoms disappear, HIV may not cause any other symptoms for months or years. During this time, the virus replicates within your body and begins to weaken your immune system. You won’t feel or look sick, but the virus is still active. You can easily transmit it to others. This is why early testing, even when you feel fine, is so important.
It may take some time, but HIV may eventually break down your immune system. Once this happens, HIV will progress to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is the last stage of infection. At this point, your immune system is severely damaged, making you more susceptible to opportunistic infections.
Opportunistic infections are conditions that the body would normally be able to fight off, but that can be life-threatening to people who have HIV. You may notice that you frequently get colds, flus, and fungal infections. You might also experience the following AIDS symptoms:
- persistent diarrhea
- chronic fatigue
- rapid weight loss
- cough and shortness of breath
- recurring fever, chills, and night sweats
- rashes, sores, or lesions in the mouth or nose, on the genitals, or under the skin
- prolonged swelling of the lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, or neck
- memory loss, confusion, or neurological disorders
How HIV progresses
As HIV progresses, it attacks and destroys enough CD4 cells that the body can no longer fight off infection and disease. When this happens, the HIV infection can lead to AIDS. The time it takes for HIV to progress to AIDS may be anywhere from a few months to 10 years or even longer.
However, not everyone who has HIV will develop AIDS. HIV can be controlled with medication called combination antiretroviral therapy (cART). The medication combination is also sometimes referred to as highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART).
This type of drug therapy can prevent the virus from replicating. While it can usually slow the progression of HIV and improve quality of life, treatment is most effective when it’s started early.
How common is HIV?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 1.2 million Americans have HIV, and the prevalence of infection is on the rise among men. In 2015, the estimated number of HIV diagnoses in the United States was 39,513. Approximately 81 percent of those diagnoses were among men ages 13 and older.
HIV can affect people of any race, gender, or sexual orientation. The virus passes from person to person through contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluids. Having unprotected sex with an infected partner greatly increases the risk of contracting HIV.
Ask your doctor for an HIV test if you’re sexually active or have ever shared needles, especially if you notice any of the symptoms presented here. The CDC recommends yearly testing for people who use intravenous drugs, people who are sexually active and have multiple partners, and people who have had sex with someone who is infected.
Testing is quick and simple and only requires a small sample of blood. Many medical clinics, community health centers, and substance abuse programs offer HIV tests. You can also order a home HIV test kit online, such as the 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.
You may feel anxious or scared about getting tested for HIV, but know that a prompt diagnosis is critical.
There’s no cure for HIV. However, getting treatment early can slow the progression of the disease and significantly improve your quality of life.
A 2013 study found that people with HIV might have a near-normal life expectancy if they start treatment before their immune systems are severely damaged. Additionally, a study by the National Institutes of Health found that early treatment helped people with HIV reduce their risk of passing the infection on to their partners.
The CDC estimates that, in the United States, 1 in 8 people living with HIV don't know that they have it. In the last several years, the number of people living with HIV has increased, while the annual number of new HIV infections has stayed fairly stable.
It’s crucial that you watch out for your own health by being aware of the symptoms of HIV and by getting tested as soon as you suspect you may have been infected. You should also take steps to prevent HIV infection by avoiding exposure to potentially infectious bodily fluids.
You can reduce your risk of HIV by taking preventive measures:
Practice safe sex: Use a condom during vaginal and anal sex. When used correctly, condoms are highly effective at protecting against HIV.
Avoid intravenous drugs: Never share or reuse needles. 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.