Symptoms of HIV

HIV can have different symptoms and lead to different health problems in different people. It also depends on which phase of the HIV infection you are in.

Are you experiencing flu-like symptoms such as night sweats, pain in your joints, a skin rash, a sore throat, swollen lymph nodes (glands) and/or continuing diarrhea? Those could be signs of a normal flu, but they could also point to an HIV infection. Get tested for HIV as soon as possible. The symptoms that HIV causes might also only appear years after the actual infection. Some people only get symptoms in the very last phase of their HIV infection. 

Four phases of an HIV infection:

  • Phase 1: acute infection
  • Phase 2: recent infection 
  • Phase 3: latent / chronic infection
  • Phase 4: AIDS

By getting yourself tested in time and starting immediately with the treatment if it turns out that you have HIV, you will keep your immune system intact as much as possible. Getting treated with HIV medications will also practically eliminate your chances of transmitting your HIV to others.

Phase 1: the acute infection

The acute phase of an HIV infection lasts for the first two to eight weeks after the initial moment of infection. HIV replicates itself very quickly in your body, even if your body has not even started making antibodies against the virus. Within two weeks your viral load will rise to a million or more virus particles.

  • In this phase you can very easily transmit HIV to your sex partners.
  • Starting two weeks after the moment of infection, you may start noticing symptoms. The symptoms normally start when your viral load rises and your immune system starts trying to fight off the virus.

 

Symptoms of an acute HIV infection

A couple of weeks after you have been infected with HIV, the amount of HIV in your body will have increased dramatically and your immune system will have become activated. You could get flu-like symptoms. Symptoms that typically accompany an acute HIV infection are:

  • fever
  • feeling tired and/or ill
  • swollen lymph nodes (glands)
  • night sweats
  • skin rash without itching
  • continuing diarrhea
  • muscle ache or pain in your joints
  • sore throat
  • blisters in your mouth or on your genitals

Most people who are infected with HIV will get symptoms in the acute phase. Those are not always recognised as being symptoms of HIV, however. Symptoms will normally appear two to eight weeks after an infection with HIV. They normally last two weeks, but they could last anywhere from a few days to ten weeks.

Be alert to symptoms of HIV after having had risky sex

If you have run a risk, for example because you didn't use a condom or because the condom broke or slid off, be alert to symptoms in the weeks after that. If you have flu-like symptoms or any of the symptoms described above, always think of HIV. Get tested for HIV as soon as possible. Don't forget to tell the doctor or the STI clinic:

  • that you have symptoms that could point to an infection with HIV
  • how long you have had those symptoms.
  • that you think you recently ran a risk of getting HIV

Have you had risky sex but you don't have any symptoms? In order to be sure, get yourself tested for HIV six weeks after you had the risky sex. If the test shows that you are HIV negative, get tested again 12 weeks (three months) after you ran the risk to exclude the possibility of an HIV infection.

Get tested for HIV as soon as possible

Phase 2: recent infection  

This period follows the acute infection and lasts for about six months after the initial infection.

  • It is in this period that your body begins to produce antibodies against HIV.
  • The amount of virus will level off somewhat.

The flu-like symptoms mentioned earlier could also appear in this period.

Phase 3: latent/chronic HIV infection 

The length of this phase varies from person to person. With some people it could last a year; with others it could last 15 years. It depends on how aggressive the virus is and how strong your immune system is.

  • In the beginning, your body will manage to keep the virus under its thumb.
  • But then it will lose the battle against HIV.
  • Your immune system will become severely damaged in this period.
  • Normally you won't have any symptoms or health problems in this phase until the HIV infection has weakened your immune system.  

Symptoms of a latent/chronic HIV infection 

The symptoms you get in this phase will often last longer than they do in the acute phase. Symptoms in this phase include:

  • chronic fatigue
  • continuing diarrhea
  • weight loss or extreme thinness (emaciation)
  • night sweats
  • swollen lymph nodes (glands)
  • fungal infection in your mouth or throat (candida)
  • white spots on the frenulum of your tongue (i.e. the bit of skin that connects the bottom of your tongue to your lower jaw).
  • herpes on your penis or around your anus
  • shingles

Do you have one or more of the symptoms listed here? In that case, get tested for HIV as soon as possible. If it turns out that you do have HIV, you can start taking HIV medications as soon as possible to make your immune system stronger again. The treatment will also practically eliminate your chances of transmitting your HIV to others.

Phase 4: AIDS

  • In this phase, your body will be extremely susceptible to all kinds of diseases that it would normally be able to fight off.
  • If you remain untreated in this phase, HIV will eventually kill you.
  • AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which means that your immune system collapses.

Symptoms

The diagnosis of “AIDS” is only given if HIV has damaged your immune system to such an extent that you become ill from an infection that your body would normally have been able to fight off. Such infections are called “opportunistic infections”. They literally see an “opportunity” to attack and take advantage of your weakened immune system. You are especially susceptible to opportunistic infections if you have fewer than 200 CD4 cells per cubic millimetre of blood.

A wide range of serious medical conditions will present itself. A few examples:

  • inflammation of your esophagus due to candida
  • PCP, a particular form of pneumonia
  • CMV, a particular eye infection
  • tuberculosis (TB)
  • AIDS dementia

Fortunately, AIDS is becoming less and less common in the Netherlands and very few people are dying of it any more. Even if you have been diagnosed as having “AIDS”, you can still recover thanks to HIV medication. In that case, you will not have “AIDS” any more but “simply” HIV. In other words: it always makes sense to get treated. Thanks to the treatment, “AIDS” is a stage that you can put behind you. It will take longer before your immune system gets back to strength, however.

 

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