HIV Symptoms

HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, weakens the immune system, making those who are infected more vulnerable to infection and even cancer. People can carry the virus for many years without ever showing symptoms. Testing is the only way to know whether or not someone is infected.

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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 is HIV/AIDS 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; this is a common way HIV is spread.  You can also contract HIV through shared needles used for tattoos and piercings.

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.

You cannot get HIV through saliva or by sharing food with someone who has HIV. You cannot get HIV from casual contact including hugging, holding hands, sneezing, coughing, or by sitting on a toilet seat. 

HIV can be transmitted through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Thanks to the screening of donated blood, which started in 1985, transmission of HIV to someone receiving a blood donation is now rare.  

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.

What do HIV/AIDS Symptoms Look Like?

People with HIV usually do not show symptoms right away. Even without symptoms, though, they are contagious. 

Within the first month of contracting HIV, many people develop flu-like symptoms as their bodies respond to the virus. These symptoms are listed below. During this early stage of HIV, there is a lot of the virus in their system, 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/AIDS?

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.

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.

How is HIV/AIDS Treated?

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.

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.

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.

Sources: US Preventative Task ForceCDCCDC-2ACOG.orgMayo ClinicACOG.org-2HIV.govNIH.gov

Medically reviewed by Amy Cyr, MD
Reviewed on October 11, 2019
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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