How Long Does It Take for HIV to Progress to AIDS?

How long does it take for HIV to progress to AIDS? In all but a few rare cases, if left untreated, HIV will progress to a stage of infection called AIDS. This is when the immune defenses have been compromised, and the body is less able to defend itself against potentially life-threatening infections.


Understanding HIV and AIDS

Generally speaking, the time it takes to go from HIV infection to AIDS is around five to 10 years if no medical intervention is made. Differences in time can be due to any number of factors, including:

  • The genetic strain of HIV a person living with the virus has been infected with (some of which may be more or less virulent than others)
  • The general health of the individual
  • The place where the person lives (including healthcare access and the incidence of other diseases or infections)
  • A person's genetics or family history
  • Smoking and other personal lifestyle choices

This is, of course, if the person receives no treatment. The picture changes entirely if they do.

Since 1996, the introduction of antiretroviral drugs has dramatically altered the natural progression of HIV infection. While HIV still cannot be cured, people newly diagnosed with HIV who get treated and stay in care can be expected to have near-normal to normal life expectancies. As with other chronic diseases, early detection is key to identifying and treating the virus as soon as possible.

A few people have been identified that have completely cleared the HIV virus and are considered "cured."

Stages of HIV Infection

The stages of infection from person to person vary slightly, both in severity and the speed of progression. These stages map the depletion of immune cells (called CD4 T-cells) as the body's defenses further and further degrade.

With each progression, the risk of opportunistic infections (OIs) increases until the immune system is said to be fully compromised. It is at this stage that the risk of illness and death is particularly high.

The stages of infection can be roughly classified as follows:

Acute Infection

In acute infection, many people can have fever, fatigue, swollen tonsils, sore throat, diarrhea, or rash. These start shortly after exposure and can last about two weeks.

Chronic Infection

After the initial infection has been controlled by the immune system, the virus goes into hiding in cellular reservoirs, unnoticed by immune defenses.

This chronic (or latent) stage of infection can last for years and even decades in some individuals until such time as the hidden viruses are reactivated (most often when the immune system is fully compromised and later-stage OI develops).


The stage is technically classified as having either an AIDS-defining condition or a CD4 count of under 200 cells/milliliter.

An AIDS diagnosis no longer means that a person will definitely get sick or die. Even if a person has a CD4 count below 100 cells/milliliter, the initiation of antiretroviral treatment (ART) can reconstitute immune function, occasionally to levels considered near-normal to normal.

Treating HIV Infection

Still, a complete cure remains elusive. Although two people have been reported to be in long-term remission from HIV one year after ceasing ART, both were the recipients of bone marrow transplants intended to treat cancer, not HIV. Long-term remission outside of these people has not been reported.

In addition, the chance of a full immune recovery decreases the longer a person waits. It is, therefore, important that treatment is provided at the time of diagnosis, irrespective of the CD4 count, and that the person remain adherent to treatment for the span of their life.

6 Sources
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  1. Langford SE, Ananworanich J, Cooper DA. Predictors of disease progression in HIV infection: a reviewAIDS Res Ther. 2007;4:11. doi:10.1186/1742-6405-4-11

  2. Dubé K, Ramirez C, Handibode J. Participation in HIV cure-related research: a scoping review of the proxy literature and implications for future researchJ Virus Erad. 2015;1(4):250–256.

  3. CDC. Patient Information Sheet. Information about acute HIV infection and PReP.

  4. World Health Organization. Interim WHO clinical staging of HIV/AIDS and HIV/AIDS case definitions for surveillance.

  5. Deeks SG, Lewin SR, Havlir DV. The end of AIDS: HIV infection as a chronic diseaseLancet. 2013;382(9903):1525–1533. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)61809-7

  6. Purcell DF, Elliott JH, Ross AL, Frater J. Towards an HIV cure: science and debate from the International AIDS Society 2013 symposiumRetrovirology. 2013;10:134. doi:10.1186/1742-4690-10-134

Additional Reading

By Mark Cichocki, RN
Mark Cichocki, RN, is an HIV/AIDS nurse educator at the University of Michigan Health System for more than 20 years.