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.”
HIV is a virus that affects the immune system, specifically the CD4 cells. The CD4 cells help protect the body from illness. Unlike other viruses that the immune system can fight off, HIV can’t be eliminated by the immune system.
The symptoms of HIV can vary greatly from person to person. No two men with HIV will likely experience the exact same symptoms. However, HIV in men will generally follow this pattern:
- acute illness
- asymptomatic period
- advanced infection
Approximately 80 percent of people who contract HIV experience flu-like symptoms within two to four weeks. This flu-like illness is known as acute HIV infection. It’s the primary stage of HIV and lasts until the body has created antibodies against the virus.
The most common symptoms of this stage of HIV include:
Less common symptoms may include:
- swollen lymph nodes
- ulcers in the mouth or on the genitals
- muscle aches
- joint pain
- nausea and vomiting
- night sweats
Symptoms typically last one to two weeks. Anyone who has these symptoms and thinks they may have contracted HIV should schedule an appointment with their healthcare provider to get tested.
After the initial symptoms disappear, HIV may not cause any other symptoms for months or years. During this time, the virus replicates and begins to weaken the immune system. A person at this stage won’t feel or look sick, but the virus is still active. They can easily transmit the virus to others. This is why early testing, even for those who feel fine, is so important.
It may take some time, but HIV may eventually break down a person’s immune system. Once this happens, HIV will progress to stage 3 HIV, often referred to as AIDS, which is the last stage of the disease. A person at this stage has a severely damaged immune system, making them more susceptible to opportunistic infections.
Opportunistic infections are conditions that the body would normally be able to fight off, but that can be life-threatening to people who have HIV. Such people may notice that they frequently get colds, flus, and fungal infections. They might also experience the following stage 3 HIV symptoms:
- persistent diarrhea
- chronic fatigue
- rapid weight loss
- cough and shortness of breath
- recurring fever, chills, and night sweats
- rashes, sores, or lesions in the mouth or nose, on the genitals, or under the skin
- prolonged swelling of the lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, or neck
- memory loss, confusion, or neurological disorders
As HIV progresses, it attacks and destroys enough CD4 cells that the body can no longer fight off infection and disease. When this happens, it can lead to stage 3 HIV. The time it takes for HIV to progress to this stage may be anywhere from a few months to 10 years or even longer.
However, not everyone who has HIV will progress to stage 3. HIV can be controlled with medication called combination antiretroviral therapy. The medication combination is also sometimes referred to as highly active antiretroviral therapy.
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.
common is HIV?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 1.1 million Americans have HIV, and the prevalence of transmission is on the rise among men. In 2016, the estimated number of HIV diagnoses in the United States was 39,782. Approximately 81 percent of those diagnoses were among men ages 13 and older.
HIV can affect people of any race, gender, or sexual orientation. The virus passes from person to person through contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluids. Having condomless sex with an infected partner greatly increases the risk of contracting HIV.
action and get tested
Those who are sexually active or have shared needles should ask their healthcare provider for an HIV test, especially if they notice any of the symptoms presented here. The CDC recommends yearly testing for people who use intravenous drugs, people who are sexually active and have multiple partners, and people who have had sex with someone who has HIV.
Testing is quick and simple and only requires a small sample of blood. Many medical clinics, community health centers, and substance misuse programs offer HIV tests. A home HIV test kit can be ordered online, such as the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test, that doesn’t require sending the sample to a lab. A simple oral swab provides results in 20 to 40 minutes.
The CDC estimated that, in the United States as of 2015, 15 percent of people living with HIV don’t know that they have it. In the last several years, the number of people living with HIV has increased, while the annual number of new HIV transmissions has stayed fairly stable.
It’s crucial to be aware of the symptoms of HIV and get tested if there’s a suspicion of having contracted the virus. Avoiding exposure to bodily fluids potentially carrying the virus is one means of prevention.
These measures can help reduce the risk of contracting HIV:
- Use condoms for vaginal and anal sex. When used correctly, condoms are highly effective at protecting against HIV.
- Avoid intravenous drugs. Never share or reuse needles. Many cities have needle exchange programs that provide sterile needles.
- Take precautions. Always assume that blood might be infectious. Use latex gloves and other barriers for protection.
- Get tested for HIV. Getting tested is the only way to know whether or not HIV has been transmitted. Those who test positive for HIV can get the treatment they need as well as take steps to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others.
Outlook for men with HIV
There’s no cure for HIV. However, getting a prompt diagnosis and early treatment can slow the progression of the disease and significantly improve quality of life.
A 2013 study found that people with HIV might have a near-normal life expectancy if they start treatment before their immune systems are severely damaged. Additionally, a study by the National Institutes of Health found that early treatment helped people with HIV reduce their risk of transmitting the virus to their partners.
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, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.