HIV Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on July 11, 2024
8 min read

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.

Symptoms of HIV can look a lot like those of other viral illnesses. If you have HIV, your symptoms could look different from those of someone else. Your symptoms will depend on how long you've had HIV and other factors.

What is usually the first sign of HIV?

The only way you can know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. Although the virus can cause symptoms, these are 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.

You shouldn't expect to know if you have HIV or not based on symptoms alone. Even if you do have symptoms related to HIV, it will be hard to tell. That's because early symptoms of HIV look a lot like the flu or many other infections you might have.

How long does it take to get HIV symptoms?

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 any more 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. This means that you may have symptoms, but they are being caused by other infections or illnesses you are more prone to getting when you have HIV.

You probably won't know right away when you've been infected with HIV. But you may have symptoms within weeks after getting the virus. This is when your body's immune system puts up a fight. It's called acute retroviral syndrome or primary HIV infection.

These symptoms may come up sooner as your body tries to fight off the virus. These early or acute symptoms may go away in a week or a month.

Flu-like symptoms

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:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Aching muscles or joints
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • A red rash that doesn't itch, usually on your torso
  • Fever
  • Ulcers (sores) in your mouth, esophagus, anus, or genitals
  • Weight loss

HIV fatigue

When you have HIV, it can be very normal to feel extremely tired or fatigued. In the acute phase, the virus itself may leave you tired. Later on, you could have fatigue for many different reasons, including:

  • Depression, anxiety, and stress
  • Not sleeping enough
  • Not taking your medicine or skipping doses
  • Taking other medicines that make you feel tired
  • Being anemic
  • Having other infections when your immune system is weak from HIV
  • Hormonal changes
  • Pain

If you have HIV or think you might have HIV and are feeling fatigued, let your doctor know. It's important to figure out the cause of your fatigue so that you can get help.

HIV rash

You may get a rash when you have HIV. The rash could be caused by the HIV itself early on in the infection. But other things may also be causing you to have a rash. These include:

  • Other viruses or infections
  • Medicines you're taking for your HIV
  • Medicines you're taking for other reasons

When you have HIV, you will have a weakened immune system. As a result, you may be more likely to get other illnesses as well, which can come with common symptoms including a rash. If your rash is caused by medicine, you may need to see your doctor to find out if you should try a different one.

Most of the time a rash is not serious. But in some cases, a rash from HIV medicines can be serious or even life threatening. Some HIV medicines can cause a hypersensitivity reaction known as Stevens-Johnson syndrome. Signs of this condition include:

  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Rash
  • Blisters that hurt and may spread

If you have HIV and a rash, let your doctor know.

Mouth symptoms and HIV infection

When you have HIV, it may affect your mouth first. Most people with HIV will have some signs in their mouths. Some signs and symptoms of HIV in your mouth include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Thrush
  • Gum disease
  • Canker sores or mouth ulcers
  • Warts
  • White lesions on the sides of your tongue
  • Herpes or cold sores

When to see a doctor about acute HIV infection symptoms

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 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.

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.

HIV and your immune system

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.

HIV asymptomatic period

Most people don't have symptoms they can see or feel at this stage. You may not realize 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.

AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. It's the most advanced stage of HIV infection. This is usually when your CD4 T-cell count 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, behavioral changes, seizures, and vision changes

People with AIDS who don't take medication live for about 3 years, or less if they get another infection. But HIV can still be treated at this stage. You can live for a long time if you start on HIV drugs, stay on them, follow your doctor’s advice, and keep healthy habits.

There's no way to cure HIV. But most people today who know they have HIV and get treatment never get AIDS. That's because medicines can stop the virus from damaging your immune system. This is why it's so important to get tested if you think you are at risk of HIV whether you have any symptoms or not.

When you have HIV and are in treatment, some symptoms you have could be from the medicine you're taking. HIV medicines can help you stay healthy with the virus and make sure you don't pass it on to anyone else. But you may have side effects, too.

Any side effects you have may depend on what medicine you're taking. Some side effects may go away after a few days or weeks. Side effects that may come up and then go away include:

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep issues

Some other possible side effects could come up later. For instance, you may be more likely to get high cholesterol from certain HIV medicines. If you're taking medicine for HIV or other conditions, talk to your doctor about what side effects you should watch out for.

In the beginning, HIV symptoms can look like other viral illnesses. You also could have no symptoms at all and have HIV. More severe symptoms tend to come up later if your immune system is damaged from untreated HIV. When you have HIV and are in treatment, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor about any symptoms you're having to figure out the cause.

How long can one live with HIV without knowing?

Early on, HIV can cause symptoms. But they usually look like many other viral illnesses. Your symptoms also will likely go away after a week or month. Symptoms of advanced HIV usually don't show up for many years. The only way to know if you have HIV and could pass it on to other people without knowing is to get tested.

How can you know if someone has HIV?

An HIV test is the only way to know if you or anyone else has HIV or not. If you're worried you could get exposed to HIV or are at risk of an infection, take steps to protect yourself. Use condoms the right way. Don't inject drugs or use sterile needles if you do. Ask your doctor if you should think about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which means you'd take HIV medicine to prevent an infection.

How does HIV make you feel?

People with HIV can feel different ways. Many symptoms can look similar to those of many other conditions. You shouldn't rely on symptoms to figure out if you have HIV or not.

Can HIV be cured at an early stage?

You can't cure HIV. But there's a lot you can do to protect yourself from getting it in the first place. If you think you may have HIV or are at risk, get tested to find out. Taking medicines early can help limit damage to your immune system to keep you healthy. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) also can keep the virus at an undetectable level so that you can avoid passing the virus on to anyone else.