Symptoms of HIV Infection

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is an easily transmissible pathogen that affects the body's ability to fight off infections by depleting the CD4 T-cells of the immune system. Experts usually describe the progression of HIV as having distinct phases during which certain symptoms tend to develop. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS), these are:

  • Primary infection (acute HIV)
  • Clinical latent infection (chronic HIV)
  • Symptomatic HIV infection/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS)

In each stage, symptoms vary, overlap, or may be mistaken for another illness. What's more, there is a stretch of time after primary infection with HIV when there may be no symptoms but during which the virus is doing severe damage to the immune system.

When HIV is detected early, it can be prevented from progressing with retroviral medication. In fact, most people with HIV in the United States who receive treatment never reach the stage at which HIV symptoms become severe and life-threatening.

Primary Infection

This is the period when the virus first enters the body and the immune system begins to react. According to the USDHHS, within two to four weeks of being infected with the human immunodeficiency virus 40 percent to 90 percent of people will experience flu-like symptoms as the body fights to control the infection, such as.

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Night Sweats
  • Pharyngitis (sore throat)
  • Myalgia (muscle aches and pains)
  • Arthralgia (joint pain)
  • Fatigue
  • Lymphadenopathy (swollen lymph nodes, mainly on the neck)
  • Mouth ulcers

Some people with ARS also will experience nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting, and one in five will develop an "HIV rash," a maculopapular skin condition characterized by raised, pink-to-red areas covered with small, pimple-like bumps that often merge together into one. HIV rash usually affects the upper body and sometimes is accompanied by ulcers on the mucous membranes of the mouth or genitals. Outbreaks usually resolve within one to two weeks.

Collectively, these symptoms are referred to as acute retroviral syndrome (ARS) or, less often, acute seroconversion syndrome or seroconversion illness.

Clinical Latent HIV Infection

This phase begins after the acute symptoms have resolved and the only indication of infection may be mild swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck.

This can be a tricky time because despite the lack of obvious illness the HIV virus is still active, damaging and destroying cells in the immune system. Without treatment, the clinical latent, or chronic, phase of HIV can last for around 10 years, during which the infected person can easily pass the virus along to someone else even if they're experiencing no symptoms whatsoever.

Symptomatic HIV Infection/AIDS

It takes about 10 years of going untreated for HIV to develop into what is commonly referred to as HIV/AIDS. At this point, symptoms of ongoing destruction of the immune system may develop, such as recurring fever, persistent and extreme fatigue, chronic diarrhea, and neurological disorders such as depression and memory loss.

Other distinctive symptoms that may occur at this time include:

Swollen Lymph Glands

Frequently appearing on the neck, below or behind the ear, in the groin, or under the armpit, in severe cases, the lymphadenopathy experienced during this stage of HIV infection can be painful and unsightly. When nodes grow larger than two centimeters (approximately an inch) and last more than three months, a person may be said to have persistent generalized lymphadenopathy or PGL. PGL can take months or years to resolve.

Candidiasis (Thrush)

This fungal infection often is an early sign of approaching illness. Although most commonly seen in the mouth, candidiasis also can occur in the throat or vagina.

Candidiasis is most likely to develop in people with very low CD4 counts (under 200 cells/mL). The prevalence of candidiasis is so high in people with advanced HIV that it's currently classified as an AIDS-defining condition if it affects the bronchi, trachea, esophagus, or lungs.

Skin Problems

These may be red, pink, brown, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids; white spots or unusual mouth or tongue lesions; or sores on the anus or genitals

Sleep Hyperhidrosis

Unexplained, drenching night sweats can be a sign of a serious, underlying HIV-related condition such as tuberculosis, Mycobacterium avium complex, or histoplasmosis)

Extreme Weight Loss (HIV Wasting)

HIV wasting is sudden, unexplained loss of at least 10 percent of body weight, especially when accompanied by fever and diarrhea for a period of 30 days or more.

People with HIV/AIDs also may develop diseases such as shingles (herpes zoster) pneumonia, and many others.

A Word From Verywell

Knowing the symptoms of HIV infection are important in directing you to timely testing, care, and treatment, and keeping an eye out for them. But they alone should not be the reason for you to get a test. If you suspect that you've been exposed to HIV, either now or anytime in the past, see your doctor and ask to be tested. It is the only way to know for sure if you have HIV. By doing so, you can better ensure not only your long-term health but the health of those around you.

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