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Symptoms and stages of HIV infection

Woman in Malawi testing for HIV

The symptoms of HIV can differ from person-to-person and some people may not get any symptoms at all. Without treatment, the virus will get worse over time and damage your immune system. We look at the three stages of HIV infection and possible effects.

Acute primary infection

Around one to four weeks after becoming infected with HIV, some people will experience symptoms that can feel a lot like flu. This may not last long (a week or two) and you may only get some of the flu symptoms – or none at all. Experiencing these symptoms alone are not a reliable way of diagnosing HIV.1

You should always visit your doctor if you are worried you have been at risk of HIV infection, even if you don’t feel unwell or have any of the following symptoms. They can then arrange for you to have an HIV test.

Symptoms can include:

  • fever (raised temperature)
  • body rash
  • sore throat
  • swollen glands
  • headache
  • upset stomach
  • body rash
  • joint aches and pains
  • muscle pain.

These symptoms can happen because your body is reacting to the HIV virus. Cells that are infected with HIV are circulating throughout your blood system, so your immune system then tries to attack the virus by producing HIV antibodies. This process is called seroconversion, and it usually happens within 45 days of infection and can take up to a few months to complete.

It’s important that you always use a condom when having sex, especially if you think you have been exposed to HIV. It may be too early to get an accurate HIV test result at this stage (this can take anything from a few weeks to a few months), but the levels of virus in your blood system are very high at this stage.2

The asymptomatic stage

Once the seroconversion stage is over, many people start to feel better. In fact, the HIV virus may not reveal any other symptoms for many years. Health professionals say this could be around 10 years. However, the virus will still be active, infecting new cells and making copies. Over time this will cause a lot of damage to your immune system.3

Symptomatic HIV infection

During the third stage of HIV infection there is usually a lot of damage to your immune system. At this point, you are more likely to get serious infections or bacterial and fungal diseases that you otherwise would be able to fight off. These infections are referred to as ‘opportunistic infections’. If a person is experiencing opportunistic infections they are now said to have AIDS.4

Symptoms that you may have during this time can include:

  • weight loss
  • chronic diarrhoea
  • night sweats
  • a fever
  • a persistent cough
  • mouth and skin problems
  • regular infections
  • serious illnesses or diseases.

There isn’t a test for AIDS and you can’t inherit it. AIDS is a syndrome, and this means it is diagnosed from a set of symptoms that happen when you become very ill from a serious infection or disease.

Taking treatment on a daily basis can be difficult to get used to, especially if you are suffering from any side-effects, so it’s important to access support from health professionals when you need it. Having AIDS also does not mean you will die from an AIDS-related illness – but getting the right treatment is really important at this point.

Photo credit: ©AVERT by Corrie Wingate

Page last reviewed: 
01 May 2015
Next review date: 
01 November 2016

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