It’s a scary thought, wondering if you may have been infected with the human immunodeficiency virus. Although HIV is a lifelong illness that progresses in stages over years, the virus is highly active in the first days and weeks following infection and often causes early symptoms.
HIV initially spreads throughout your body and immune system unchecked and multiplies rapidly, producing billions of new viruses daily within a few weeks. The skyrocketing level of HIV in the body triggers a short-term illness called acute HIV syndrome, or acute retroviral syndrome, in approximately 40 to 90 percent of people infected.
Recognizing acute HIV syndrome symptoms provides you an opportunity for early diagnosis and treatment, which may affect the long-term course of the disease. Knowing you have HIV during this highly-contagious stage of the infection also helps prevent unintentional spread to others.
Early Symptoms of HIV Infection
Acute HIV syndrome symptoms vary in terms of the number and type of symptoms you may experience and their severity. Common symptoms that occur in approximately 50 percent or more of people with acute HIV syndrome include:
- Fever (100.4 to 104 F), possibly with night sweats, in at least 80 percent of people;
- Swollen, sore “glands” (i.e., lymph nodes);
- Achy joints and/or muscles;
- Rash, especially on your upper body, neck and/or face;
- Lacking energy, tiring easily or sleeping more than usual;
- Reduced appetite, which may lead to weight loss; and
Less common symptoms of early HIV infection include:
- Painful, ulcer-like sores in your mouth or on your genitals;
- Yeast infection of your mouth, throat and/or genitals; and
- Nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea.
In some people, severe infections that are usually seen with full-blown AIDS may develop during early HIV infection. A high fever, coughing up phlegm and shortness of breath may signal that you’ve developed HIV-related pneumonia. Personality changes, reduced mental clarity, confusion, numbness, weakness and new seizures could indicate involvement of your nervous system. Seek medical care right away if you experience any of these symptoms.
Timing and Duration of Early HIV Symptoms
Acute HIV syndrome symptoms usually begin within two weeks of infection, but may be delayed for up to six weeks. As HIV spreads through your body in the early weeks after infection, your immune system responds by releasing a “storm” of specialized chemicals to sound the alarm that an infection has occurred, and to recruit and direct immune cells to fight the invading viruses.
Early symptoms develop as a result of this immune system battle and the growing number of HIV viruses in your body. Acute HIV syndrome typically lasts about two weeks, although your symptoms may linger, gradually improving for as long as two months.
Some early HIV infections produce no symptoms or symptoms that are hard to tell apart from other viral illnesses. The symptoms of acute HIV syndrome are often overlooked or misdiagnosed because they mimic those of other common infections, especially infectious mononucleosis (mono), the flu and strep throat. You can help your health provider make the correct diagnosis by honestly sharing why you suspect you may have been exposed to HIV. Health care providers want to help — not judge — you. They are best able to provide help when you are candid about your situation, and are legally and ethically bound to protect your confidentiality.
If you suspect you may have been exposed to HIV, it is important to be tested as soon as possible. Contact your doctor and make an appointment. Tell the office about any symptoms so they know this is not a routine visit and to schedule you accordingly.
If you don’t have a regular health care provider and live in the United States, online HIV testing locators are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services. To find testing sites in Canada, call your provincial or territorial HIV/AIDS hotline.
Although it’s hard to share personal information, tell your health care provider when you think you may have been exposed to HIV, when your symptoms developed and how long you’ve had them. This information helps in deciding the best HIV test to use. If you test positive for HIV, your health care provider will talk with you at length about treatment options.
Because HIV levels in the blood and body are very high during the early weeks after infection, transmitting the virus to others is more likely during this time.
- To prevent the possibility of passing the virus to someone else, it is best to refrain from sexual activity with your partner(s) while you wait for your medical appointment and HIV test results. If you decide to engage in sexual activity, use a condom each time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex.
- It is always important not to share injection equipment and other drug equipment with others to prevent the spread of HIV and other blood infections; and it’s crucial if you suspect you may be newly infected with HIV.
- Talk with your health care provider if you have questions about other HIV prevention precautions.
For Family Members, Friends and Other Loved Ones
Few health concerns are as frightening as thinking you may have contracted HIV. Anxiety, uncertainty, self-doubt, guilt, shame, fear of rejection and many other feelings and issues may prevent someone you care about from seeking prompt medical evaluation and HIV testing.
If you’re concerned that someone in your life may have early HIV, kindly share your thoughts and offer your support. Knowing others are willing to stand by you often helps in moving forward through difficult circumstances.