HIV is a virus that compromises the immune system. There is currently no cure for HIV, but since the late 1980s, treatment in the form of antiretroviral drugs has been available to help reduce the impact of any symptoms.
In the majority of cases, once a person contracts HIV, the virus stays in the body for life. However, HIV symptoms are unlike the symptoms of other viral infections in that they come in stages.
If left untreated, the disease caused by the infection has three phases. Each has different potential symptoms and complications.
But regular antiretroviral treatment can reduce HIV to undetectable levels in the blood. This means the virus won’t progress to the later stages of HIV infection or be transmitted to a partner during sex.
The first noticeable stage is primary HIV infection. This stage is also called acute retroviral syndrome (ARS), or acute HIV infection.
It usually causes flu-like symptoms, so it’s possible for someone in this stage to think they have severe flu or another viral illness rather than HIV. Fever is the most common symptom.
Other symptoms include:
- sore throat
- excessive fatigue
- muscle pain
- swollen lymph nodes in the armpits, neck, or groin
- a red or discolored, itchy rash with small bumps
- mouth ulcers or oral thrush
According to the
ARS is common once a person develops HIV. But this isn’t the case for everyone as, according to HIV.gov, symptoms may not appear for a decade or longer.
Although the virus replicates quickly in the weeks after contracting it, symptoms in early HIV only tend to show up if the rate of cell destruction is high.
This doesn’t mean that cases of HIV without symptoms are less serious or that an asymptomatic person can’t transmit the virus to others.
After initial exposure and possible primary infection, HIV may transition to the clinically latent infection stage. Due to a lack of symptoms in some people, this is also referred to as asymptomatic HIV infection.
According to HIV.gov, latency in HIV infection can last up to 10 or 15 years. This means that the virus is replicating much slower than before. But it doesn’t mean that HIV is gone, nor does it mean that the virus can’t be transmitted to others.
Although many people are asymptomatic during this stage, some may still have symptoms after the acute infection.
Symptoms of chronic HIV can vary, ranging from minimal to more severe. People may experience episodes of the following, particularly in advanced stages:
Clinically latent infection may progress to the third and final stage of HIV, known as AIDS. The chance of progression is higher if a person with HIV isn’t receiving or adhering to treatment, such as antiretroviral therapy.
Sometimes, AIDS is determined simply by a person’s overall health — it develops when HIV has significantly weakened the immune system and can lead to AIDS-defining conditions, such as certain infections and cancers, that are rare in people who don’t have HIV.
Symptoms of AIDS include:
- persistent high fevers of over 100°F (37.8°C)
- diarrhea that lasts for longer than a week
- severe chills and night sweats
- white spots in the mouth
- genital or anal sores
- severe fatigue
- rashes that can be brown, red, purple, or pink in color
- regular coughing and breathing problems
- significant weight loss
- persistent headaches
- memory problems and other neurological issues
- opportunistic infections, such as pneumonia, lymphoma, or tuberculosis
Individuals who might contract HIV more frequently are advised to test at least once every year. This may include people:
- assigned male at birth (AMAB) who have sex with other AMAB people
- who’ve had anal or vaginal sex with someone who is HIV-positive or whose status is unknown
- who share needles or syringes
- who’ve recently been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
- who’ve had a new sexual partner since their last HIV test
You can find a local testing site here.
There are a few
Nucleic acid tests are usually able to detect an HIV infection between 10 and 33 days after exposure.
Antigen/antibody tests using blood from a vein have a typical window period of 18 to 45 days, while finger prick antigen/antibody tests can be used 23 to 90 days after potential exposure.
A negative result should be double-checked with a second test after the window period.
A positive result will also be checked with a follow-up test (aka “confirmatory testing”). If the second test comes back positive, you will be diagnosed with HIV.
Finding out that you’re HIV-positive can be difficult for some. But there are healthcare professionals out there who can help — both physically and emotionally.
Your usual clinician may be able to help directly or refer you to a one experienced with HIV. Alternatively, you can find a local clinician experienced with HIV here.
It’s important to start treatment as soon as HIV is diagnosed. Consult a doctor or other healthcare professional if you experience any new or worsening symptoms.
The infection can be managed with antiretroviral drugs. These will need to be taken during all stages of HIV — even if there aren’t any noticeable symptoms.
Medications therefore help to prevent progression of the disease, maintain quality of life, and can stop the virus from being transmitted to others via sex.
You may be given a combination of drugs to stop the virus from becoming resistant. The majority of people have an undetectable viral load within 6 months.
If this isn’t achievable, any sexual partners can be protected by taking a medicine called preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Condoms should also be used to help prevent transmission during sex.
Your clinician will
If HIV progresses to AIDS, other medical interventions are usually necessary to treat AIDS-related illnesses or complications that can be fatal.
The only 100 percent effective method of preventing HIV is to avoid sharing drug injection equipment and abstain from sex.
However, there are ways to reduce the chance of contracting HIV. You might:
- Use condoms or other barrier methods properly alongside water- or silicone-based lubricants to prevent breakage.
- Test regularly for STIs — an untreated STI can
increase your chanceof contracting HIV.
- Consider taking PrEP if you have a higher chance of contracting HIV.
- Try to have honest discussions with partners about sexual health and histories.
HIV has three stages — each with its own set of symptoms.
The first symptoms often appear within a few weeks of exposure. However, some people experience no symptoms until years later.
Regular testing is crucial if you have a higher chance of contracting HIV. With swift and proper treatment, the infection and its symptoms can be managed, helping you and any sexual partners to stay as healthy as possible.
Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.