You can have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and not know it. You also can have been exposed to HIV but not necessarily be infected. About 1 in 7 people who are HIV-positive are unaware of it. The only way to know if you are infected is to get an HIV test.
HIV doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Some people notice signs soon after they get the virus. Others don’t. If the virus is in your body, here’s a timeline of what to expect:
Immediately. If you have just become infected with HIV, you will probably not notice anything different. You’ll feel like you usually do. If there’s any chance that you might have just become infected, see your doctor or go to a health clinic right away. They can give you an emergency antiretroviral medication called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to prevent a possible infection. Ideally, you should start the drug within a day or two after exposure. PEP greatly lessens your chances of infection if you take it correctly, but it’s not 100% effective.
One to 8 weeks later. If you become infected, the first symptoms won’t appear until a few weeks later. This phase is called acute HIV infection. You might have flu-like symptoms, including:
- Fever and chills
- Aches and pains, including muscle aches
- Night sweats
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Sore throat
- Dry cough
- Diarrhea lasting for more than a week
Many other things can also cause these symptoms.
During this time, the HIV is multiplying and spreading inside your body. It attacks and starts to destroy your CD4 cells, which help your body fight infection. You might think that you have a bad cold or the flu. But some people don’t have any symptoms.
One month or more later. This stage is called chronic HIV infection. After your body’s initial response to the HIV virus, you may not have any symptoms for many years. But if left untreated, the HIV virus will continue to destroy CD4 cells and attack your immune system.
Years and decades later. Without treatment, HIV will progress to the third and most severe stage: AIDS. It can take about 10 years for your disease to turn into AIDS. That’s when your immune system is so weak that you can’t fight infections. Swollen lymph nodes and glands may be the first sign of AIDS. Other symptoms include:
- White coating of the mouth, called “thrush”
- Fever, chills, and sweating, including night sweats
- Low energy or exhaustion
- Weight loss
- Breathing problems
- Diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal cramps
- Mouth, genital, or anal sores caused by herpes infection
- Skin rashes that don’t go away
- Shingles, a painful nerve disease that can cause a skin rash or blisters
- Memory problems
The most important thing is to diagnose HIV infection as early as possible and start treatment with antiretroviral therapy. Treatment will stop destruction of the immune system, keep you healthy, and prevent progression to AIDS. If taken correctly, treatment can also keep you from passing HIV to others. If you have HIV but start antiretroviral therapy quickly and stay on it, you’ll likely live almost as long as someone without the virus.