Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that can be spread through sexual contact, contaminated needles, blood transfusions, and other infected body fluids. It targets the immune system, specifically CD4 cells, and if left undiagnosed and untreated, can overwhelm the immune system and cause life-threatening complications.
HIV symptoms can appear at different times for different people, and some may not recall having any symptoms at all until diagnosis (which can be many years after the initial infection).
What are the Different Stages of HIV Infection?
HIV infection occurs in three main stages:
- Acute HIV Infection,
- Chronic HIV Infection (Clinical Latency Stage),
- and Late-Stage HIV or AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).
HIV symptoms may vary depending on the individual and the stage of infection, and some people may not have any HIV symptoms at all.
1) Acute HIV Infection
Within the first 2-4 weeks after initial infection, the virus replicates very quickly and HIV viral load will reach a high level. People may experience flu-like symptoms, which they may describe as ‘the worst flu ever’.
This is known as Acute Retroviral Syndrome or ARS. These acute HIV symptoms may occur in about 70-80% of people.
Acute Retroviral Syndrome ARS / HIV Symptoms may include:
- Night sweats
- Swollen glands
- Sore throat
- Body rash
- Body aches
- Nausea and vomiting
Acute HIV symptoms can last between several days to several weeks, until the body can develop HIV antibodies to fight the virus. This is also the stage of the greatest infectious risk to others as the HIV viral load is very high. However, do remember that these symptoms are seen in other common conditions as well, and you shouldn’t assume you have HIV just because you experienced them.
If you are concerned about any symptoms or potential exposure, it is best to see a doctor to have them evaluated and consider HIV testing.
Different HIV tests are able to detect the infection at different times
The earliest you may be able to detect the virus is with HIV DNA/RNA PCR testing, which can be accurate from 10-12 days post-exposure. Other more common tests would be the 4th Generation HIV p24 Antigen/Antibody test, which is considered conclusive from 28 days post-exposure.
If you have had a potentially risky exposure within the last 72 hours, you can consider a course of medication called HIV Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (HIV PEP). This works to prevent the virus from replicating and taking hold in the body, and can reduce risk of transmission by more than 90%. It is only effective if started within 72 hours.
2) Chronic HIV Infection
After the early stage of acute HIV infection, the disease enters into a clinical latency stage, where the virus is developing in the body, but no symptoms are seen. During this time, the virus is still active but will replicate slowly inside the cells – it can still be transmitted to others, but the risks of transmission are lower than during the acute phase.
If you have been diagnosed with HIV and are on HIV antiretroviral treatment (HAART), the virus is often kept under control and you may experience a symptom-free period that can last decades. If the virus can be suppressed to undetectable viral load levels, we would deem the risk of transmission extremely low. This stage of HIV infection can last for 5-10 years.
If you have HIV but are not on treatment, then it will eventually progress to late stage infection, known as AIDS.
3) AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome)
Late Stage HIV / AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome)
If you have HIV but are not on antiretroviral treatment, it will eventually weaken your immune system and progress to AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.
Symptoms or signs of late stage HIV / AIDS may include:
- Rapid weight loss
- Recurring fever
- Profuse night sweats
- Extreme tiredness
- Swollen glands
- Persistent diarrhea
- Mouth or genital sores and ulcers
- Fungal infections, especially oral thrush
- Shortness of breath, lung infections (e.g. PCP)
- Memory loss, limb weakness and other neurological disorders
- Mucous membrane and skin rashes and lesions (patches of reddish-purplish lesions may be characteristic of Kaposi sarcoma)
Many of these signs and symptoms in AIDS are due to Opportunistic Infections (OI’s), which are organisms that usually only cause infections in people with a weak immune system. People with normal functioning immune systems will typically be able to fight these types of infections off, or suppress them so they do not manifest with significant symptoms.
Common types of OI’s include candidiasis (thrush), pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), tuberculosis (TB), and salmonella colitis infection, among many others.
In someone who is diagnosed with late-stage HIV and whose CD4 cell count is found to be very low, doctors will usually start on certain medications such as antifungals or antibiotics to prevent these OI’s; they will be kept on these medications as prophylaxis, while they are taking their regular HIV medications, until their CD4 count is high enough (indicating their immune system is strong enough to fight off these infections by itself).
Even if you experience the previously mentioned symptoms, it is impossible to confirm HIV infection unless you get tested. If you are concerned about a possible exposure, please visit our clinics for a consultation and evaluation.
Other Interesting Reads:
- The HIV Provirus DNA Test can be done 10 days post exposure.
An Overview of STD – From an STD Doctor