HIV is a serious infection that compromises the immune system. There’s currently no cure for it. In the majority of cases, once chronic HIV infection has been established, the virus stays in the body for life. Despite the potential severity of the infections it causes, HIV symptoms don’t suddenly appear and peak overnight. Unlike other types of viruses, HIV causes a progressive illness in which symptoms and severity vary from person to person.
The first noticeable stage of this viral syndrome is primary HIV infection. This stage is also called acute retroviral syndrome (ARS) or acute HIV infection. HIV at this stage usually cause flu-like symptoms in infected individuals. It may be possible for someone in this stage to pass off their symptoms as being caused by a severe flu rather than HIV. Fever is the most common symptom. Other symptoms include:
- sore throat
- excessive fatigue
- muscle pain
- swollen glands
- maculopapular truncal rash
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), primary HIV infection symptoms may show up two to four weeks after initial exposure. Symptoms can continue for up to several weeks. However, some people may only exhibit the symptoms for a few days. People with early HIV sometimes don’t show any symptoms, yet are still contagious. This is attributed to the fast, unrestrained viral replication in the early weeks of infection.
ARS is common once a person is infected with HIV. Still, this isn’t the case for everyone. Some people are infected with HIV for years before they know they have it. According to HIV.gov, sometimes symptoms of HIV may not appear for a decade or longer. This doesn’t mean that cases of HIV without symptoms are less serious or less likely to be fatal. Also, if someone does not experience symptoms, they could still transmit HIV to others.
Symptoms in early HIV tend to appear if the rate of cell destruction is high. Not having symptoms can mean that not as many CD4 cells are killed early on in the disease as in other infected individuals. Even though a person has no symptoms, they still have the virus. That’s why regular HIV testing is critical to prevent transmission. It’s also important to understand the difference between a CD4 count and a viral load.
After initial exposure and possible primary infection, HIV may transition into a stage called clinically latent infection. It’s also referred to as asymptomatic HIV infection due to a noticeable lack of symptoms. This lack of symptoms includes possible chronic symptoms.
According to the Mayo Clinic, latency in HIV can last for 10 years. This doesn’t mean the HIV is gone, nor does it mean that you can’t pass the infection on to others. Latency may progression to AIDS.
Your risk for progression is higher if you aren’t receiving treatment, such as antiretroviral therapy. It’s important to take prescribed medications during all stages of HIV — even if you don’t exhibit any symptoms. There are several medications used for HIV treatment.
After acute infection, HIV is considered chronic. This means that the disease is ongoing. Symptoms of chronic HIV can vary. There can be long periods of chronic infection when the virus is present but symptoms are minimal. In more advanced stages of chronic infection, symptoms can be much more severe than they are in ARS. People with advanced, chronic HIV can experience episodes of:
Controlling HIV with medications is crucial to both maintaining quality of life and helping prevent a rapid progression of the disease. AIDS develops when HIV has significantly weakened the immune system. According to the CDC National Prevention Information Network, one way AIDS occurs is when CD4 levels decrease below 200 cells per cubic milliliter of blood (mm3). A normal range is considered 500 to 1,600 cells/mm3.
AIDS can be diagnosed with a blood test to measure CD4, but sometimes it’s also determined simply by your overall health. In particular, having an infection that is rare in people with a normal immune system may indicate that you have AIDS. Symptoms of AIDS include:
- persistent high fevers of over 100°F (37.8°C)
- 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
AIDS is the final stage of HIV. According to the Mayo Clinic, without treating HIV most people develop AIDS within 10 years. At that point, your body is susceptible to a wide range of infections and cannot effectively fight them off. Medical intervention is necessary to treat infections or else death can occur. Without treatments, the CDC estimates the average survival rate to be three years once AIDS is diagnosed. Depending on the severity of infection, the outlook may be significantly shorter.
The key to living with HIV and AIDS is to continue seeing your doctor for regular treatments. You should also schedule a visit as soon as you experience new or worsening symptoms. It’s also imports to know about how HIV affects the body.