When a person first becomes infected with HIV (primary HIV infection), he or she may or may not develop any symptoms. In fact, primary HIV infection may go unnoticed in as much as 50% of cases.
Some people, however, will experience symptoms upon HIV infection. Symptoms can occur within days or weeks of the initial exposure to the virus, and may be smaller in nature to the symptoms of other infections that are transmitted sexually, for example mononucleosis and hepatitis.
Upon primary HIV infection, many people report a flu-like or mononucleosis-like illness, with a variety of symptoms, the most common being rashes of the skin, fever, swollen lymph nodes, pharyngitis, oral or genital ulcers, pain in the joints or muscles, diarrhea, headache, nausea, vomiting, and malaise usually within 2 to 6 weeks after exposure to the virus. At this time, the lymph nodes (organs of the immune system) can become swollen and tender (swollen glands), and easily felt in either the neck, under the armpits or groin area. Regardless of the type of symptoms, most of the symptoms resolve in 14-21 days. These symptoms are often mistaken for those of another viral infection. During this stage of primary HIV infection, people are very infectious due to the fact that HIV is present in large quantities in genital secretions.
In HIV infected individuals, more severe and persistent symptoms may not surface for 10 years or possibly longer after HIV first enters the adult body. This asymptomatic infection period is highly variable from person to person. Some people can have symptoms within a few months, whereas others will not have any symptoms for 10 years or more. During this asymptomatic period of HIV infection, however, the virus is actively reproducing itself and infecting and destroying cells of the immune system (cells that help fight infection and disease and in the process help keep you healthy).
As the infection process progresses and the immune system deteriorates, many complications begin to arise. One of the first such symptoms in HIV infected individuals is the enlargement of the lymph nodes, or more commonly referred to as swollen glands, which can persist for more than 3 months.
Many of the symptoms of advancing HIV disease (AIDS) are similar to other health problems not related to HIV. The following symptoms should prompt a medical visit to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.
- swollen glands in the neck, armpit and groin
- continued fever or night sweats
- weight loss of more than 10 pounds which is not due to dieting or increased physical activity
- heavy, continual dry cough that is not from smoking or that has lasted too long to be a cold or flu
- increasing shortness of breath
- continuing bouts of diarrhea
- thrush, a thick whitish coating on the tongue or in the throat, which may be accompanied by a sore throat
- recurring vaginal yeast infections
- unexplained skin rashes, like psoriasis or seborrhea
- herpes infections that last longer than usual
It is important to note that symptoms are never a reliable way to diagnose HIV infection!
Testing for HIV antibodies is the best way to find out if you have been infected with the virus.
We recommend testing if you think you may have been exposed to the virus, or practice risky behaviors that may expose you to HIV.