What are the symptoms of HIV?

Many people who become newly infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) experience symptoms which are very much flu like in nature during the first few weeks. This is a sign that your immune system has noticed something is wrong and is putting up a fight against the new infection.  Having these symptoms do not mean that you do have HIV.  The only way to know for sure is to get tested.

These symptoms usually occur two to six weeks after transmission.  They can last for up to four weeks. Research carried out by the National Aids Trust suggests that 70% - 90% of people who become infected with HIV develop these early symptoms.

Early symptoms

Not everyone has symptoms, but when these do occur, most commonly they include:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Body rash

Other symptoms can include:

  • Tiredness
  • Diarrhoea
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Swollen glands
  • Nausea

These symptoms are very common to many illnesses. The only real way to know if you have HIV is to get tested.

Symptoms of HIV over longer periods

After the first stage, there follows a long period where there are fewer symptoms.  This is known as the 'asymptomatic stage'.  An untreated HIV positive person can look and feel well for the first few years of an infection. They may slowly find that it takes longer to get over colds and other infections. This period can last around 8 to 10 years (without treatment, but much longer if the appropriate treatment is followed). It is during this time that the virus attacks the immune system causing a drop in the CD4 count.

CD4 is a protein found on the surface of a type of white blood cell (T cells) that play an important role in fighting off infections. It is these CD4 cells that send a signal to other cells in the body that an infection is present and needs to be destroyed.  As the CD4 count drops and the immune system is weakened, the person may begin to experience signs of other illnesses.

As the CD4 count drops, the person may have entered the third stage: the 'symptomatic stage' during which Infections such as pneumonia and TB are more likely as the immune system is weakened and it can be harder to fight off new infections. Signs of other illnesses can include sudden weight loss, night sweats, an increase in frequency of cold sore outbreaks, swollen glands, tiredness and diarrhoea.

It is during this stage where an immune system cannot cope and other infections occur, that someone may be diagnosed with AIDS (an AIDS defining illness will occur).  These days, with approriate medicaiton, most people with HIV who take the appropriate treatment early and regularly enough will not go on to develop AIDS.

Any of these symptoms can occur in people without HIV, so even at this stage the only way to know is to get tested. You should take a test if you are at risk, even if you have no symptoms. An early diagnosis is important for successful treatment.

Research has also shown that early diagnosis is important as it allows HIV to be monitored and managed so that the person receives the most appropriate care to them. With correct management HIV is no longer the life-threatening illness it once was. Better2Know offers HIV tests that can detect the virus from just ten days after any potential exposure.