What are the Early Signs and Symptoms of HIV?

HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, is the virus responsible for causing AIDS. This virus is known to weaken a person’s ability to fight against infections since it attacks the immune system. HIV can be contracted through needle sharing, unprotected sex, from body fluids, and many other ways are there of contracting this virus. While an HIV test is used for confirming the diagnosis, there are also many early signs of HIV that can give you an indication that something is not quite right in your body. HIV infection typically happens in three stages, and without treatment, it tends to get worse over a period of time, eventually overwhelming your immune system and causing your systems to shut down or stop working properly. By recognizing the early signs of HIV, you will be able to consult a doctor at the right time, without delaying your diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Let’s take a look at what these early signs of HIV are.

Overview of HIV Transmission

HIV stands for the human immunodeficiency virus. HIV causes AIDS, which affects your immune system, weakening your ability to fight against infections and diseases. You can contract HIV from human fluids, breast milk, sexual fluids, sharing needles, and many other ways. The virus primarily spreads through unprotected sex(1) and sharing needles(2). AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, a condition that happens when your immune system stops functioning correctly since you are infected by HIV.

When you think about HIV transmission, it is essential that everyone is aware of the early signs and symptoms you should be looking out for. The early detection of HIV is vital as then you can begin treatment at the earliest, which will help in controlling the virus and also prevent the progression of the disease into stage 3 HIV. Stage 3 of HIV is what is commonly known as AIDS.(3)

Early treatment of HIV with the use of antiretroviral drugs can make the virus almost undetectable, preventing the transmission of the virus to other people.

What are the Early Signs and Symptoms of HIV?

The early signs and symptoms of an HIV infection usually appear as symptoms that are similar to the symptoms caused by the flu. These include:

The early symptoms of HIV tend to arise within a month or two after the initial transmission, though it is possible for them to show up as early as just two weeks from exposure.(4) What’s more, some people may not experience any early symptoms after contracting the virus. It is important to keep in mind that these early symptoms of HIV are usually also associated with other common diseases and health conditions. In order to be sure about whether or not you have contracted HIV, you need to talk with a doctor and learn about the tests available for diagnosing HIV. Typically, a small blood test is sufficient to confirm the diagnosis.

In some cases, the lack of symptoms can even last for as long as ten years(5). However, this delayed appearance of symptoms does not mean that the virus has disappeared from the body. It only means that the virus was lying dormant in the body until now.

HIV is a health condition that can be managed with proper treatment. However, if you leave it untreated, then HIV will go on to progress to stage 3 (AIDS) even if there are no symptoms present. This is why it is essential for anyone suspecting transmission to get tested.

Some of the symptoms that indicate that your condition has progressed to stage 3, or AIDS, are as follows:

  • Rashes
  • Chills and night sweats
  • High fever
  • Severe weight loss
  • Persistent coughing
  • Breathing problems
  • White spots in the mouth
  • Regular fatigue – even after getting a good night’s sleep you still wake up feeling tired
  • Memory problems
  • Pneumonia
  • Genital sores

The virus becomes transmittable from the moment it gets introduced into your body. During the initial infection stage, the bloodstream is known to contain higher levels of HIV, making it much easier to transmit the virus to others.

Since not everyone experiences early symptoms of HIV, getting tested for HIV is the only way there is to know if you have contracted the virus. Early diagnosis of the virus also allows an HIV-positive person to start treatment. Proper treatment helps eliminate the risk of transmitting the virus to other people and their sexual partners.

What are the Stages of HIV?

Broadly speaking, there are three main stages of HIV, and the symptoms also tend to vary depending on which stage you are at. The first stage of HIV is known as primary or acute HIV infection. This stage is also referred to as an acute retroviral syndrome. During this phase, people are likely to experience the typical symptoms of having the flu, making it difficult to distinguish from a respiratory infection or a gastrointestinal infection.

The second stage is known as the clinical latency stage. In this stage, the virus is not very active, though it is still very much present inside your body. During this second stage, you may experience no symptoms, even though the viral infection caused by HIV is continuing to progress at very low levels.

This period of clinical latency can even last for a decade or sometimes even longer. Many people do not experience any symptoms of the disease during this entire ten year period.

The last and final stage of HIV is known as stage 3 or AIDS. During this phase of the disease, your immune system is already severely damaged and also susceptible to other opportunistic infections.(6) These can include:

  • Candidiasis
  • Cryptococcal meningitis
  • Cryptosporidiosis
  • Infection from cytomegalovirus
  • Infection from the herpes simplex viruses
  • Pneumocystis pneumonia
  • Salmonella septicemia or food poisoning
  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC)

Once HIV reaches stage 3, the symptoms associated with the viral infection becomes more and more apparent. These symptoms can include:

Symptoms that are associated with HIV itself, including cognitive impairment, also start becoming apparent.

Your survival rate from an HIV infection also depends on which stage your treatment was started. If treatment is begun at an early stage, it increases your chances of being able to manage the disease and living a longer life.(7)

Points to Consider

When you look at HIV symptoms, it is best to remember that it is not necessarily only HIV that makes people sick. There are many symptoms of HIV, especially the severe ones that can arise from associated opportunistic infections, as described above.

The germs that are responsible for causing these opportunistic infections usually do not affect people who have a healthy and intact immune system. But because due to HIV, the immune system becomes compromised, these viruses and bacteria are able to attack the body, causing diseases. People who do not experience any symptoms during the early stages of HIV might start to feel sick and become symptomatic if the virus starts to progress.

Conclusion – Importance of HIV Testing

HIV testing is essential because even if a person is living with HIV but not experiencing any symptoms, they can still transmit the virus to others. Other people who contract the virus will end up passing the virus to more people through an exchange of bodily fluids or other ways of infection. With advancements in technology, it is possible to eliminate the risk of transmitting this virus to other HIV-negative people if you begin treatment on time.

According to recommendations of the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)(8), treatment with antiretroviral therapy can cause the virus to become suppressed, preventing transmission to HIV-negative sexual partners. When a person who has HIV is able to maintain an undetectable load of the virus, they are then unable to transmit HIV to anybody else. An undetectable viral load is typically considered as having lesser than 200 copies of the virus in one milliliter (mL) of blood.

Getting tested for HIV is the only way possible to determine whether the virus is present in your body. There are certain risk factors that greatly increase a person’s likelihood of contracting HIV. For instance, people who have sex without using condoms or those who share needles should consider consulting their doctor and getting tested for HIV.

References:  

  1. Royce, R.A., Sena, A., Cates Jr, W. and Cohen, M.S., 1997. Sexual transmission of HIV. New England Journal of Medicine, 336(15), pp.1072-1078.
  2. Homer, J.B. and St. Clair, C.L., 1991. A model of HIV transmission through needle sharing. Interfaces, 21(3), pp.26-49.
  3. Klein, D., Hurley, L.B., Merrill, D. and Quesenberry Jr, C.P., 2003. Review of medical encounters in the 5 years before a diagnosis of HIV-1 infection: implications for early detection. JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, 32(2), pp.143-152.
  4. HIV.gov. (2019). Symptoms of HIV. [online] Available at: https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/about-hiv-and-aids/symptoms-of-hiv [Accessed 26 Jun. 2019].
    nhs.uk. (2019). HIV and AIDS – Symptoms. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/symptoms/ [Accessed 26 Jun. 2019].
  5. Longini, I.M., Clark, W.S., Haber, M. and Horsburgh, R., 1989. The stages of HIV infection: waiting times and infection transmission probabilities. In Mathematical and statistical approaches to AIDS epidemiology (pp. 111-137). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
  6. Enger, C., Graham, N., Peng, Y., Chmiel, J.S., Kingsley, L.A., Detels, R. and Muñoz, A., 1996. Survival from early, intermediate, and late stages of HIV infection. Jama, 275(17), pp.1329-1334.
  7. Cdc.gov. (2019). Dear Colleague: September 27, 2017 | What’s New | About the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention (DHAP) | HIV/AIDS | CDC. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/library/dcl/dcl/092717.html [Accessed 26 Jun. 2019].

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