HIV is a virus that affects the immune system, specifically the CD4 cells, which help protect the body from illness. Unlike other viruses the immune system can normally fight off, HIV can’t be eliminated by the immune system.
As HIV progresses, it attacks and destroys so many CD4 cells that the body can no longer fight off infection and disease. When this happens, the HIV infection can lead to the development of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). According to AIDS.gov, AIDS is the last stage of an HIV infection. It is life threatening. People with AIDS need medical treatment to survive.
The time is 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).
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.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one million Americans have HIV, and the prevalence of infection is on the rise among men. In 2014, the estimated number of HIV diagnoses in the U.S. was 44,073. Approximately 80 percent of those diagnoses were among men ages 13 and older. HIV most commonly affects gay and bisexual men. However, the virus also occurs in heterosexual males, with a higher prevalence of African-American men.
HIV is most often transmitted through male-to-male sexual contact, according to the CDC. This might explain why HIV is more prevalent among gay and bisexual men. However, HIV is also transmitted through heterosexual contact. The virus can pass 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.
Once infection occurs, it can take a couple of weeks for symptoms to appear. These may include flu-like symptoms, weight loss, and fatigue. However, HIV might not cause symptoms for several years. The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested. Knowing your status allows you to get treatment sooner and to take steps to prevent transmitting the infection to others. Always ask your doctor for an HIV test if you suspect you are infected.
The symptoms of HIV can vary greatly from person to person. No two men with HIV will 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 after 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 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 and joint pain
- nausea and vomiting
- night sweats
Symptoms typically last one to two weeks. If you’re experiencing 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, and you can easily transmit it to others. This is why early testing, even when you feel fine, is so important.
It may take up to 10 years or longer, but HIV may eventually break down your immune system. Once this happens, HIV will progress to AIDS, which is the last stage of infection. At this point, your immune system is severely damaged, making you more susceptible to opportunistic infections.
These are conditions that the body would normally be able to fight off, but that can be life-threatening to those infected with 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
- sores in the mouth or on the genitals
- red, brown, or purplish lesions under the skin or inside the mouth or nose
- prolonged swelling of the lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, or neck
- memory loss, confusion, or neurological disorders
Ask your doctor for an HIV test if you notice any of the symptoms presented here. Testing is quick and simple, only requiring 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 getting 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 or increase your life expectancy.
A recent study found that people with HIV might have a near normal life expectancy, provided they start treatment before their immune systems are severely damaged. Additionally, a 2011 study found that early treatment helped people with HIV reduce their risk of passing the infection on to their partners.
According to the CDC, nearly 1 in every 8 people is infected with HIV but doesn’t know 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. However, new HIV infections are far too prevalent, particularly among certain groups. These include bisexual and gay men as well as African-American men.
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 fluids. These include blood, semen, and vaginal fluid. You can reduce your risk of developing HIV by making smart choices:
Practice safe sex
Always use 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 to HIV 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.
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 CDC 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.
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