The only way you can know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. Although the virus can cause symptoms, they’re not a reliable way to tell if you’re infected. In fact, some people won’t have any symptoms at all. So even if you don’t have any of the typical signs of an infection, you should always get tested if you think you are at risk.
Am I at Risk for HIV?
You get HIV through direct contact with certain kinds of body fluids -- blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid (also called pre-cum), vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, and breast milk. The biggest risks are having vaginal or anal sex without a condom or sharing needles with someone who has HIV. But other things can increase your odds of having it, too.
The CDC recommends that everyone in the United States between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV at least once as a precaution. In addition, you should ask yourself the following questions, and if you answer yes to any of them, you should get tested:
- Have you had unprotected sex with someone who has HIV or a person whose HIV status you don’t know?
- Have you injected drugs (including hormones, steroids, and silicone) and shared needles or syringes with others?
- Have you been diagnosed with an STD?
- Have you been diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB) or hepatitis?
- Have you had sex with anyone who would answer “yes” to any of the questions above?
- Have you been sexually assaulted?
How Long Does It Take to Show Symptoms of HIV?
Some people notice flu-like symptoms 1-4 weeks after they're first infected. They often only last a week or two. This stage is called acute or primary HIV infection.
Then, you may go for 10 years or more without further symptoms. This is called asymptomatic HIV infection. Even though you feel fine, the virus is still active in your body. And you can still give it to someone else.
Once HIV has seriously harmed your immune system, you're at risk for diseases that a healthy body could fight off. In this stage, symptomatic HIV infection, you start to notice problems caused by those "opportunistic" infections.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of HIV?
No two people with HIV will have the same symptoms, and some may not have any at all. But the infection can cause some common changes over time.
In the first few weeks: These first, flu-like symptoms happen because your body is reacting to HIV. Your immune system is trying to fight it off. The symptoms at this stage can include:
- Upset stomach
- Sore throat
- Swollen glands
- Aches and pains in muscles and joints
Keep in mind that even if you have these symptoms, that doesn’t automatically mean you are HIV-positive. Many different illnesses can cause these problems. Talk to a doctor or an HIV testing facility if you think you might be infected.
At this early stage of HIV infection, it’s important to know that you may not get accurate results from an HIV test. It can take 3-12 weeks for enough signs of the virus to show up on routine tests for the infection, which measure antibodies against HIV. A new kind of screening, called a nucleic acid test, can detect the virus itself during this early stage, but it’s expensive and not usually used for routine HIV testing.
Let the testing site or your doctor know if you think you might be recently infected. Also, be sure to use a condom every time you have sex, and take other steps to prevent spreading the virus.
Months to years after infection: After the first stage has passed, most people with HIV will start to feel healthier. But that doesn’t mean the virus is gone. It can take a decade for other symptoms to show up. During this time, if your HIV infection is untreated, the virus is still infecting new cells in your body.
After years with untreated HIV, you’re likely to get infections caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi that your body is no longer strong enough to fight off. They can be a sign that your infection has gone from HIV to AIDS. You might have:
- Weight loss
- A cough that won’t go away
- Night sweats
- Mouth and skin problems
- Frequent infections
- Serious illnesses or diseases
Again, these symptoms can also be the signs of other illnesses and don’t necessarily mean you have HIV or AIDS. Get tested to know for sure.
Early treatment is the key to surviving and living with HIV. In the 20 years since combination therapy has been implemented, survival rates among those infected and who adhere to treatment have increased significantly. Studies have found that, depending on how early the infection is treated, the life span of HIV patients undergoing regular treatment my be essentially no different from someone who does not have HIV.