HIV Symptoms

HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, weakens the immune system, making those who are infected more vulnerable to infection and even cancer. If left untreated, HIV can develop into AIDS.

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What is HIV/AIDS?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that causes damage to the cells needed for a healthy immune system. These cells are known as CD4 T cells. By reducing the number of T cells in the body, the immune system is weakened, making it difficult to fight illness. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the final stage of this process, and it is diagnosed when someone develops a rare infection or when his or her T cell count is very low.

Although there is no cure, effective treatments can protect the immune system, control the virus, and prevent HIV from being spread to others, especially if the infection is caught early. To improve the chances of catching HIV early, the Centers for Disease Control recommend that all people aged 15-65 be screened at least once. Screening is also recommended for people at risk of contracting HIV.

How do I know if I have HIV?

It’s basically impossible to self diagnose HIV just by observing your symptoms. In many cases, infected individuals remain asymptomatic for some time, and those who aren’t may experience flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, aches, fatigue, etc.) that are not unique to an HIV diagnosis. The only way to know for sure if you’ve contracted HIV is to take a reputable test from a credible STD testing services provider.

How is HIV contracted?

HIV is contracted only by the direct transfer of certain bodily fluids from an infected person with a detectable viral load to a non-infected person. Fluids include blood, semen, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and even breast milk. The most common methods for spreading HIV include unprotected vaginal or anal sex with an infected partner or sharing devices that can potentially transfer infected blood. Sharing syringes and other injection drug equipment is certainly a risky practice as is getting a tattoo or piercing from a contaminated needle.

Can you get HIV from kissing?

HIV is not passed through saliva, so contracting HIV by way “making out” is not a cause for alarm. The only concern would be in the unlikely event that both partners have bleeding gums or open sores that would permit an exchange of infected blood. If such a rare circumstance was to arise, certainly it would be possible to contract HIV from kissing. As far as innocent pecks on the cheek or lips, you shouldn’t need to worry.

Can you get HIV without having sex?

Yes, you can certainly contract HIV through means other than sexual activity. As we’ve mentioned, sharing drug needles or using infected tattoo or piercing needles can certainly put you at risk. Babies born to HIV-infected mothers are also at a high risk and should be tested frequently in the first year of life (breastfeeding in this instance should also be avoided). Blood transfusions or organ transplants are not nearly as risky as they once were as potential donors are checked rigorously prior to donating. Essentially, HIV transmission is possible (even if unlikely) in any instance in which the transfer of blood or infected bodily fluid occurs. You cannot contract HIV through casual contact with people or shared surfaces like toilet seats.

Can anyone contract HIV?

There is no known natural immunity to HIV, so yes, anyone can technically contract the disease. And even those who never experience symptoms may still be at risk of becoming infected. However, unlike a cold or flu, you are not putting yourself at risk merely by going out in public and living your life. HIV is transmitted solely by the transfer of bodily fluids (not including saliva), so merely being in the presence of an infected person is not, in itself, a considerable risk.

How is HIV prevented?

HIV is contagious even when people don’t have symptoms. It is contracted through exposure to blood and other body fluids including semen and vaginal fluids. Because of this, the virus can be transmitted through sexual activity including vaginal, anal, and rarely oral sex. You can avoid infection through a variety of safer sex practices. Latex condoms, dental dams, reducing your number of partners, being in a mutually monogamous relationship, and even abstinence are all ways of decreasing your risk of exposure.

Because HIV is present in blood, IV drug users should not share needles as this is a dangerous practice that can easily lead to the transmission of HIV. Likewise, needles used for tattoos and piercings should be cleaned and sterilized before each use so as not to inadvertently pass along HIV or other harmful viruses found in the blood.

Although less common, you can contract the virus through skin or mucous membrane cuts, tears, or sores. The insides of the mouth, vagina, and anus are lined with mucous membranes.

Because HIV can be passed through the transmission of blood, it is possible for HIV to be contracted through blood transfusions or organ transplants. However, because the screening processes for blood donation, which started in 1985, have become much more thorough and meticulous, these issues are extremely rare.

HIV is spread through blood and sexual fluids and not, despite what you’ve heard, through the air, through casual contact, or through inanimate objects. That being said, you cannot get HIV through saliva or by sharing food with someone who has HIV. Nor can you get HIV by hugging, holding hands, sneezing, coughing, or by sitting on a toilet seat.

People exposed to HIV within the past 72 hours are eligible for a treatment called PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis): Taking medications as soon as possible after exposure to HIV reduces the chance of getting infected.

Do condoms protect against HIV?

Using condoms properly will help minimize the risk of contracting or transmitting HIV by as much as 80 percent. To prevent breakage, it’s always best to use a water or silicone-based lubricant when using condoms and ensure that the condom is applied correctly before engaging in sex. And in case you need it, here’s a quick refresher on how to use a condom properly.

What do HIV symptoms look like?

People with HIV usually do not show symptoms right away. But even when symptoms are not present, the virus remains potentially dangerous and extremely contagious.

Within the first month of contracting HIV, many people will develop flu-like symptoms as their bodies respond to the virus. These symptoms can include body rashes, fevers, sore throat, fatigue, mouth ulcers, and muscle aches among others. During this early stage of HIV, the body carries a lot of the virus, making them incredibly contagious.

After the acute illness gets better, the virus remains in the body but may not be actively attacking the immune system. This is called clinical latency, and people in this stage have few, if any, HIV symptoms. However, they are still contagious.

Without treatment, people may stay in this stage for an average of 10 years. With newer medications, people can stay in this stage for decades.
When people with HIV get infections or cancers that are rare in people with normal immune systems, or when their T cell counts are very low, the diagnosis of AIDS is made. At this point the immune system is badly damaged. Some of the symptoms of AIDS are listed below.

What can I expect when I get tested for HIV?

Getting tested for HIV requires a blood sample, which will look for evidence of the virus. Usually at least 10 days need to pass between infection and testing for this to be accurate. If this test is negative but you still suspect you could have HIV, a repeat test should be done. If the HIV test is positive, an additional blood test may be needed to confirm the results.

With Priority STD Testing, simply select the HIV test (or a panel option that includes an HIV test) from our online catalog, find the closest testing facility, and stop by at your convenience. Tests take only a few minutes and most people are in and out in under a half hour. In most cases, you’ll have your results in as little as 24-72 hours.

If you believe you have been exposed to HIV within the last 72 hours, seek immediate medical treatment at the nearest emergency room. They will test you for HIV and you may be eligible to take PEP, medication to reduce your chances of getting infected.

What can I expect from HIV treatment?

While there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, there are effective treatments. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is a combination of medicines that can reduce the amount of HIV in the body to slow its damage, ease HIV symptoms, and lower the risk of spreading the virus to someone else.

With ART, many people with HIV are expected to live as long as people without HIV. In fact, ART does such a good job of suppressing HIV that the virus can become invisible to blood tests. Even when the virus is undetectable, though, people are still contagious.

Along with taking medication, those with HIV can also make lifestyle changes to improve their overall health. Such lifestyle changes include eating right, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep while avoiding things like stress, smoking, drugs, or alcohol.

What if HIV goes untreated?

If left untreated for long enough (eight to ten years on average), HIV will develop into AIDS which can be catastrophic for your immune system. If the virus has progressed this far, it is imperative that you consult with your physician to get the proper treatment. Thanks to advances in medicine, it is very possible to live with HIV and even AIDS for much longer than ever thought possible. Of course, the earlier you start your treatment, the better.

How will HIV/AIDS affect my pregnancy?

While babies can get infected with HIV during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, the chance of this happening is reduced to less than 1% with antiretroviral medication. For this reason, it is recommended that all pregnant women be tested for HIV early in their pregnancies and, if they are at risk of being exposed to HIV, again later in their pregnancies.

The chance of passing HIV on to the baby can be further reduced by giving the infant anti-retroviral medication, not breastfeeding, and by having a c-section if the mother has a lot of virus in her bloodstream.

Babies exposed to HIV should be tested several times within the first 6 months of life.

The psychological effects of HIV/AIDS

Discovering that you might have HIV can be deeply distressing. After having your diagnosis confirmed through testing, you may wish to see a mental health professional to help alleviate the psychological stress of this potentially life-threatening illness. While many people adapt to living with HIV, living healthy lives with treatment, having a mental health professional can be a welcome addition to your health care support team.

There are also support groups for those with HIV/AIDS. Many find this sense of community to be helpful, having other people who can empathize and understand the fears and challenges associated with having HIV.

Relationships with HIV/AIDS

It is important to tell your current and future partners if you are diagnosed with HIV. Sexual partners, even if they don’t have symptoms, can be tested. In some states, it is required that partners be notified if they have been exposed to HIV.

You can reduce the chance of passing HIV on to your partner by practicing safer sex, including using latex condoms and dental dams. Taking ART to reduce the amount of virus in your body also reduces the chance of you infecting your partner. If your partner is HIV negative, he or she may also be able to take a daily medication to reduce the chance of getting infected.

How do I get tested for HIV?

Getting tested for HIV involves a simple blood test, which looks for the presence of HIV antibodies. Typically, it takes between three and 12 weeks after infection before antibodies occur. This means that with the standard HIV test, even those who are infected will not generate a positive test right away. If you believe you’ve been infected and cannot wait that long, you’ll want to take an HIV RNA early detection test which identifies the virus itself rather than just antibodies. This test is accurate as early as 10 days after potential exposure. Both tests are available through Priority STD Testing’s online catalog. Once your test is purchased, simply stop by the testing center nearest you to have your test administered. Results will be available in just 24-72 hours.

Can I take an at-home HIV test?

While there are at-home testing options for HIV, be warned that administering a test yourself can certainly affect the accuracy of your results. Be wary of at-home options that are not approved by the FDA. Though many brands will claim to be just as accurate as any other option, the truth is you simply don’t know what you’re getting. In addition, in using a self-administered testing kit, directions can sometimes be unclear which can lessen your chances of an accurate reading. The best case when it comes to accurate HIV testing is to find a reputable STD testing service and let the experts handle the process start to finish.

What if I have additional questions?

If you have questions about the HIV testing process, or are wondering if you should get tested, contact one of our Priority STD Testing care counselors. They’ll be able assist you in finding the right tests, understanding your results, and planning for future steps to get you back on the path to wellness.

Medically reviewed by Amy Cyr MD
Reviewed on 12/21/2021
HIV Symptoms - Acute HIV Infection
  • Body rash
  • Fever or chills
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Muscle aches and joint pain
  • Night sweats
AIDS Symptoms
  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Skin rashes
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Recurring fever
  • Recurring chills
  • Recurring night sweats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Sores, white spots, or ulcers in the mouth
  • Genital or anal sores
  • Vaginal yeast infections
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Persistent swelling of the lymph nodes
  • Memory loss, confusion or neurological problems

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