Medically Reviewed by Jonathan E. Kaplan, MD on November 29, 2021

When You Get HIV

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Many people with HIV won’t have any symptoms at first. But gradually, different ones will appear -- though they’re not the same for everyone. The disease manifestations can be divided into 3 stages: acute HIV (first 2-4 weeks), chronic HIV (middle stage, which can last months to years, with no symptoms at all, although the immune system is deteriorating during this stage), and late stage (AIDS). Early detection and treatment can prevent more serious illness.s.

When Symptoms Begin

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The first symptoms usually show up about 2 to 4 weeks after infection. But these are reported by only about 1 out of 3 people with HIV. This is the acute or primary stage of the virus and can easily be missed because it may not occur at all, or it can be confused with other flu-lke illnesses. It’s the body’s natural way of fighting HIV. If it is recognized, it provides an opportunity to diagnose HIV early. And, the earlier that HIV is diagnosed and HIV drugs (ART) are started, the more likely that the rest of the cascade can be prevented.

Swollen Lymph Nodes

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After the first week in the acute stage, many people get swollen lymph nodes. They usually show up in their neck. Sometimes they’re in the armpits or groin. For most, the nodes shrink after a few weeks. But swelling can stay for a long time after that.

Flu-Like Symptoms

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For the first couple of weeks of the acute stage, you may have no symptoms at all or you might have flu-like symptoms. They can include fever, sore throat, headache, and joint and muscle pain. These things might seem mild, but the amount of virus in your blood at this point is very high. That makes it easy to spread HIV.

Rash

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You might get a rash a few days after you have a fever. The rash often is spread over the face, neck, and upper chest. Sometimes it can affect other areas of your body, too. It can last for a week or so.

Skin and Mouth Sores

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During this acute stage, you might also start to have sores or ulcers. These can be painful and happen in your mouth, throat, genital area, and anal area. Not everyone with HIV gets these sores.

Digestion Issues

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You may have a range of symptoms that affect your digestion and appetite during the acute stage. This includes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. HIV can also make you lose your appetite. 

Cough

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The only breathing issue that you might have in the early stages of an HIV infection is a dry cough. It usually goes away after a few weeks or a month.

Chronic HIV

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After the early acute stage, most people are symptom-free for a while.

During this period, when your HIV becomes chronic, you might feel fine for months or even years. The only symptom you might have is slightly swollen lymph nodes. But problems can come up as your immune system gets weaker and your disease progresses. You can avoid these things if you get tested and treated for the virus.

Yeast Infection

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If the disease continues without treatment, symptoms will surface as your immune system struggles to fight the virus. One common issue is a yeast infection in the mouth called thrush. Yeast causes creamy-colored patches that are sore. They can also bleed easily.

Shingles

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As the virus gets worse, you might get shingles. It’s caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. People who get shingles usually had chickenpox when they were children. Symptoms include painful blisters or a rash on your face and body. Shingles can also cause vision loss.

Other Health Conditions

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Even with treatment, HIV causes long-lasting inflammation. This raises your chances of other illnesses. You could have heart, liver, bone, or kidney disease. You could also get diabetes or cancer. The important thing is to follow your treatment and keep your appointments.

AIDS

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The advanced stage of HIV infection is AIDS. You might have night sweats, long-lasting fever, and diarrhea that lasts more than a week. You could be tired all the time and have unexplained weight loss. Purple or brown spots on your skin, depression, and memory loss are also possible. The best way to avoid AIDS is to start your HIV treatment early, take HIV medicine as prescribed, and follow your doctor’s advice.

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SOURCES:

UCSF Health: “HIV Signs and Symptoms.”

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: “What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?”

AVERT: “Symptoms and Stages of HIV Infection.”

UpToDate: “Patient education: Symptoms of HIV infection (Beyond the Basics).”

HIV.gov: “How Can You Tell If You Have HIV?” “Other Health Conditions Associated with HIV.”

Mayo Clinic: “HIV/AIDS.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Herpes zoster (shingles).”