How Long Does It Take to Show Symptoms of HIV?

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks your body’s immune system. Left untreated, it can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Early diagnosis is key to slowing down disease progression.

Symptoms may vary from person to person, but knowing the early symptoms that could present can help you get diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.

This article will discuss the various stages of HIV, how symptoms may present, how testing works, and what to expect if you test positive for the virus.

HIV test

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What Is Acute HIV Infection?

There are three stages of HIV infection:

  • Stage 1: Acute HIV infection
  • Stage 2: Chronic HIV infection
  • Stage 3: AIDS

Acute HIV infection is the first stage of the infection. Usually within two to four weeks of infection, two-thirds of those with HIV will experience flu-like symptoms. These symptoms may last for several days or even weeks. However, some people may experience no symptoms at all.

In this stage, there is a large amount of HIV in your blood, which is known as the viral load. Studies have noted incredibly high viral loads during the acute stage, meaning you are more contagious at this time.

When Do Symptoms Occur?

Some people have flu-like symptoms within two to four weeks after infection, but others may not feel sick or not develop symptoms at all until later.

See a healthcare provider if you have symptoms of HIV and think you may have been exposed to HIV. Getting tested for HIV is the only way to know for sure.

In the United States, HIV is spread mainly through having anal or vaginal sex or sharing needles or syringes with an HIV-positive partner. Anal sex is the highest-risk behavior.

You can prevent HIV by using condoms correctly every time you have sex; pre-exposure prophylaxis, a prevention method in which the HIV-negative partner takes daily HIV medicine to prevent HIV; and treatment as prevention, a method in which the HIV-positive partner takes daily HIV medicine to achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load.

Only antigen/antibody tests or nucleic acid tests (NATs) can diagnose acute HIV infection. NATs look for actual virus in the blood, and antigen/antibody tests look for HIV antibodies and antigens. Antibodies are produced by your immune system when you’re exposed to viruses like HIV, and antigens are foreign substances that cause your immune system to activate.

However, no test can detect HIV immediately after infection. NATs can usually tell if you have an HIV infection 10 to 33 days after exposure, while antigen/antibody tests can tell 18 to 45 days after exposure.

Early Symptoms of HIV

The early symptoms of HIV can include:

About 13% of people living with HIV in the United States are unaware of their diagnosis. Many of these people do not have any symptoms. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people in the United States between 13 and 64 years old, regardless of whether they have symptoms, be tested for HIV at least once in their life.

How to Tell If Symptoms Are HIV

There are three types of HIV tests:

  • An NAT involves drawing blood from a vein. It can tell if you have HIV or how much virus is present in your blood. While an NAT can detect HIV sooner than other types of tests, this test is very expensive and not routinely used for screening individuals unless they recently had a high-risk exposure, or a possible exposure and have early symptoms of HIV infection. This test takes several days for results to come back.
  • An antigen/antibody test is recommended for testing done in labs and is now common in the United States. It involves drawing blood from a vein, and results take several days to come back. There is also a rapid antigen/antibody test available that is done with a finger prick and takes 30 minutes or less to get results.
  • HIV antibody tests only look for antibodies to HIV in your blood or oral fluid. In general, antibody tests that use blood from a vein can detect HIV sooner after infection than tests done with blood from a finger prick or with oral fluid. Antibody tests can detect an HIV infection 23 to 90 days after exposure. Most rapid tests and the only currently approved HIV self-test are antibody tests. They take 20 minutes or less to provide results.

Keep in mind, any positive result (known as the preliminary positive) would necessitate a second test to confirm it. The only test that would not require a second confirmatory test is the NAT.

The time between when a person may have been exposed to HIV and when a test can tell for sure whether they have the virus is called the window period. The window period varies from person to person and depends on the type of test used to detect HIV. If you get an HIV test after a potential HIV exposure and the result is negative, you need to get tested again after the window period.

What to Expect Next

If you find out you are HIV-positive, it’s important to keep in mind the condition is treatable. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is recommended for all people with HIV, regardless of how long they’ve had the virus or how healthy they are. It works by lowering the amount of virus in the body to very low levels. This treatment can also slow the progression of the infection and protect the immune system.

Taking ART medications is vital to slowing the progression of HIV. Left untreated, HIV will progress to the second stage. During this stage, people may experience no symptoms at all. If no treatment is administered, an individual can stay in this stage for 10 to 15 years.

For people who have no symptoms of an acute HIV infection, it takes an average of seven years to proceed to AIDS.

A Word From Verywell

Early diagnosis is vital to slowing the progression of HIV. If you are in a high-risk group, it is recommended that you get tested every three to six months. A number of tests are available, including at-home options, for you to get your results.

Most people with HIV in the United States will not progress to AIDS, given the advancement in treatment options. Adherence is everything, however. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have, and get tested if you’re concerned you’ve been exposed.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. HIV.gov. How can you tell if you have HIV? Updated July 1, 2020.

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