What Are the Symptoms of HIV?
HIV infection happens in three stages. Without treatment, it gets worse over time and eventually overpowers your immune system. Your symptoms will depend on your stage.
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.
Some people notice flu-like symptoms 1-4 weeks after they're first infected. These often only last a week or two. This first 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 these "opportunistic" infections.
First Stage: Acute HIV Infection Symptoms
Most people don't know right away when they've been infected with HIV. But they may have symptoms within 2 to 4 weeks after they’ve gotten the virus. This is when your body's immune system puts up a fight. It's called acute retroviral syndrome or primary HIV infection.
The symptoms are similar to those of other viral illnesses, and they're often compared to the flu. They typically last a week or two and then go away. Early signs of HIV include:
- Aching muscles
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- A red rash that doesn't itch, usually on your torso
- Ulcers (sores) in your mouth, esophagus, anus, or genitals
If you have symptoms like these and might have come into contact with someone with HIV in the past 2 to 6 weeks, go to a doctor and ask that you get an HIV test. If you don’t have symptoms but still think you might have come into contact with the virus, get tested.
Early testing is important for two reasons. First, at this stage, levels of HIV in your blood and bodily fluids are very high. This makes it especially contagious. Second, starting treatment as soon as possible will help boost your immune system and ease your symptoms.
A combination of medications (called HIV drugs, antiretroviral therapy, or ART) can help fight HIV, keep your immune system healthy, and keep you from spreading the virus. If you take these medications and have healthy habits, your HIV infection probably won’t get worse.
Second Stage: Clinical Latency Symptoms
After your immune system loses the battle with HIV, the flu-like symptoms will go away. But there’s a lot going on inside your body. Doctors call this the asymptomatic period or chronic HIV infection.
In your body, cells called CD4 T cells coordinate your immune system’s response. During this stage, untreated HIV will kill CD4 cells and destroy your immune system. Your doctor can check how many of these cells you have with blood tests. Without treatment, the number of CD4 cells will drop, and you’ll be more likely to get other infections.
Most people don't have symptoms they can see or feel. You may not realize that you're infected and can pass HIV on to others.
If you’re taking ART, you might stay in this phase for decades. You can pass the virus on to other people, but it’s extremely rare if you take your medicines.
Third Stage: AIDS Symptoms
AIDS is the advanced stage of HIV infection. This is usually when your CD4 T-cell number drops below 200 and your immune system is badly damaged. You might get an opportunistic infection, an illness that happens more often and is worse in people who have weakened immune systems. Some of these, such as Kaposi's sarcoma (a form of skin cancer) and pneumocystis pneumonia (a lung disease), are also considered “AIDS-defining illnesses.”
If you didn't know earlier that you were infected with HIV, you may realize it after you have some of these symptoms:
- Being tired all the time
- Swollen lymph nodes in your neck or groin
- Fever that lasts more than 10 days
- Night sweats
- Weight loss with no obvious reason
- Purplish spots on your skin that don't go away
- Shortness of breath
- Severe, long-lasting diarrhea
- Yeast infections in your mouth, throat, or vagina
- Bruises or bleeding you can't explain
- Neurological symptoms such as memory loss, confusion, balance problems, behavior changes, seizures, and vision changes
People with AIDS who don't take medication live about 3 years, or less if they get another infection. But HIV can still be treated at this stage. If you start on HIV drugs, stay on them, follow your doctor’s advice, and keep healthy habits, you can live a long time.