A rash is often one of the early signs of HIV. It typically appears after a fever and other flu-like symptoms. This rash usually lasts about a week.
Although an HIV rash tends to appear on the upper body and face, it can appear anywhere on the body, including the penis.
HIV is a chronic virus that weakens the immune system. It’s usually transmitted via sexual contact. Although a cure for HIV isn’t available, its symptoms are treatable. If HIV isn’t treated, the virus can lead to stage 3 HIV, also known as AIDS.
A person can have HIV for several years before it progresses to AIDS. However, the longer someone waits to start treatment, the greater the risk to their health.
If a person develops AIDS, it means their immune system has become severely weakened. This makes them vulnerable to opportunistic infections, such as Pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia or toxoplasmosis. AIDS also makes them vulnerable to typical infections, such as community-acquired pneumonia and cellulitis. Although these infections can be harmful to anyone, they can be especially harmful to a person living with AIDS.
Sometimes, people with HIV mistake these symptoms for the flu and put off seeing a healthcare provider.
Sores or ulcers
Some people develop sores or ulcers after contracting HIV. These sores are often painful and can appear on the:
Like a rash that can appear on the penis, these sores or ulcers usually show up within a month after HIV is contracted. Not all HIV-positive people get these sores, though.
Swollen lymph nodes
Lymph nodes in the neck and armpit may also swell soon after HIV is contracted. While the flu-like symptoms and rash may disappear on their own, swelling of certain lymph nodes may last for a long time. This can continue even after a person starts treatment.
Lack of symptoms
It’s also possible to have a mild case of HIV. A mild case may not produce a rash or other obvious symptoms soon after transmission.
Genital rashes aren’t always a sign of HIV. They can result from a number of other conditions, including:
- jock itch, a fungal infection associated with staying in sweaty clothing for too long
- yeast infection, which is an overgrowth of fungus
- balanitis, or the swelling of the penis tip or foreskin; it’s associated with poor hygiene
- contact dermatitis, which may result from allergens
- scabies, a type of infestation
A rash on the penis isn’t enough to diagnose HIV or any other condition. For example, a yeast infection can cause a red rash to appear on the penis. It can also cause the tip of the penis to feel itchy. Although women are much more likely to develop yeast infections, men can get these infections, too.
Regardless of the cause, a healthcare provider should evaluate a rash on the penis. If a person has other symptoms of HIV, they should be sure to explain those symptoms to their healthcare provider. This knowledge can help the healthcare provider make a diagnosis.
The only way to confirm the presence of HIV is through a blood test. If a person has a known risk factor for HIV and thinks they’ve been exposed to the virus, they should consider scheduling an appointment with their healthcare provider.
For a long time, HIV could only be diagnosed through a blood test that looked for antibodies to the virus. After exposure to the virus, it can take several weeks for the body to produce HIV antibodies. This means that HIV may not be detected if a person is tested too soon after possible exposure.
HIV also produces a protein known as p24 antigen, or HIV antigen. It appears very soon after transmission. A blood test for the HIV antigen is available. It can confirm whether someone has HIV within 15 to 20 days after a sexual encounter.
If a person has a rash on their penis and an HIV test comes up negative, their healthcare provider may have them take a urine test to look for a possible yeast or fungal infection.
If a rash on the penis isn’t related to HIV, a healthcare provider will likely recommend an over-the-counter or prescription medication or ointment to relieve symptoms. The recommended medication depends on whether the rash is:
If the healthcare provider determines that a person has HIV, one of the next steps will be to discuss treatment options. The standard treatment for HIV is called antiretroviral therapy. It includes a combination of medicines taken daily to help reduce the amount of HIV in the body. It can’t eliminate the virus, but it can minimize the level of circulating virus. Minimizing the amount of virus present in the body can help ensure that an HIV-positive person is better protected against other infections.
If the virus is suppressed to the point that it becomes undetectable, it becomes virtually impossible for an HIV-positive person to transmit the virus to someone else. This is the message of Undetectable = Untransmittable, or (U=U), a campaign by the Prevention Access Campaign.
With treatment, an average rash will generally go away in one or two weeks.
If a person has been diagnosed with HIV, their healthcare provider will work with them to start a treatment regimen. Controlling HIV and preventing it from progressing to stage 3 HIV requires a daily dedication to antiretroviral therapy. People living with HIV should also consider using condoms during sex and avoiding behaviors that could put them and their health at risk.
Successful HIV management demands a good working relationship and open communication between an HIV-positive person and their healthcare provider. If a person living with HIV doesn’t feel they’re getting the answers they want from their healthcare provider, they might want to seek out a new one who has experience working with HIV-positive people.
People at increased risk for HIV may want to explore the medication pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) now recommends this daily pill for all people at increased risk for HIV.
People can also limit their chance of exposure to HIV by wearing a condom during intercourse and engaging in other practices that help prevent STIs. For example, it can be beneficial to talk about HIV testing before engaging in sexual activity with a new partner. Partners can consider going together to get tested.
In cases of mixed-status couples, the partner with HIV should consider moving forward with treatment. They should also consider speaking with a healthcare provider about ways to prevent their partner from contracting HIV. When an HIV-positive person is consistent about antiretroviral therapy and is able to maintain an undetectable viral load, they become incapable of transmitting the virus to a partner. Taking medication can then become an important prevention strategy.