UPDATE COMING We’re currently working to update this article. Studies have shown that a person living with HIV who is on regular antiretroviral therapy that reduces the virus to undetectable levels in the blood is NOT able to transmit HIV to a partner during sex. This page will be updated soon to reflect the medical consensus that “Undetectable = Untransmittable.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV infection. Almost one in six of this group are unaware that they are infected. People often don’t have any noticeable symptoms at the time of HIV infection. Any symptoms they do have are unlikely to be recognized as being linked to HIV.
When someone is diagnosed with HIV, this may change. They may be able to remember having flu-like symptoms near the time of their infection. However, at the time, they probably just thought they had the flu.
When a person first becomes infected with HIV, they are said to be in the acute stage of infection. The acute stage is a time when the virus is multiplying very rapidly. At this stage, the immune system actively tries to fight off the infection.
Symptoms can occur during this stage of infection. However, HIV symptoms are difficult to identify unless you know you have been exposed. Acute HIV symptoms are similar to those of other viral infections. They include:
- weight loss
- frequent fever and sweats
- lymph node enlargement
- yeast infections
- persistent skin rashes or flaky skin
Standard antibody tests may not be able to detect HIV at this stage of infection. If you experience these symptoms and either think you may have been or definitely know you have recently been exposed to HIV, tell your doctor. Alternate tests can be used to identify early HIV infection.
After the virus becomes established in the body, you will no longer feel sick. This is the chronic stage of HIV infection. It can last for many years. During this time you will likely have no symptoms of infection. Without treatment, the virus will continue to damage your immune system. You may eventually develop AIDS.
If HIV weakens your immune system enough, you will develop AIDS. A diagnosis of AIDS means that you suffer from immunodeficiency. Your body can no longer effectively fight off many different types of infections, many of which would have previously been easily dealt with by your immune system.
AIDS doesn’t cause many symptoms itself. With AIDS you will suffer symptoms from opportunistic infections. These are infections that take advantage of your decreased immune function. Symptoms and signs of common opportunistic infections include:
- dry cough or shortness of breath
- difficult or painful swallowing
- diarrhea lasting for more than a week
- white spots or unusual blemishes in and around the mouth
- pneumonia-like symptoms
- vision loss
- nausea, abdominal cramps, and vomiting
- red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
- seizures or lack of coordination
- neurological disorders such as depression, memory loss, and confusion
- severe headaches and neck stiffness
- development of various cancers
Specific symptoms will depend on which infections and complications affect your body.
Certain opportunistic infections, such as Kaposi’s sarcoma, are extremely rare in people without AIDS. Having one of these diseases may be first the sign of HIV infection in people who haven’t been tested for the virus.
HIV treatment can prevent or delay the development of AIDS.
If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, get tested. Knowing your status may be scary. However, treatment can keep HIV from damaging your body. People with HIV can live long, full lives with the appropriate treatments.
According to the CDC, HIV testing should be part of routine medical care. Everyone should be tested for HIV.