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 people with HIV will likely experience the exact same symptoms. However, HIV 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. Acute HIV infection is 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 consider scheduling an appointment with their healthcare provider to get tested.
Symptoms of HIV are generally the same in women and men. One HIV symptom that is unique to men is an ulcer on the penis.
HIV may lead to hypogonadism, or poor production of sex hormones, in either sex. However, hypogonadism’s effects on men are easier to observe than its effects on women. Symptoms of low testosterone, one aspect of hypogonadism, can include erectile dysfunction (ED).
After the initial symptoms disappear, HIV may not cause any additional 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. AIDS 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 can be harmful to people who have HIV. People living with HIV may notice that they frequently get colds, flu, 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 antiretroviral therapy. The medication combination is also sometimes referred to as combination antiretroviral therapy (cART) or highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART).
This type of drug therapy can prevent the virus from replicating. While it can usually stop the progression of HIV and improve quality of life, treatment is most effective when it’s started early.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 1.1 million Americans have HIV. 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 blood, semen, or vaginal fluids that contain the virus. Having sex with an HIV-positive person and not using a condom greatly increases the risk of contracting HIV.
People who are sexually active or have shared needles should consider asking 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, such as the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test, can be ordered online. These home tests don’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 possibility 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. Try not to 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.
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. For resources related to HIV treatment in the United States, visit AIDSinfo.
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 (NIH) found that early treatment helped people with HIV reduce their risk of transmitting the virus to their partners.
Recent studies have indicated that adherence to treatment, such that the virus becomes undetectable in the blood, makes it virtually impossible to transmit HIV to a partner. The Prevention Access Campaign, backed by the CDC, has promoted this finding through their Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U) campaign.
How soon should I get tested for HIV?From our Facebook community
According to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), everyone from ages 13 to 64 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, HIV.gov 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.