There are four stages of HIV:

1. Primary infection stage
2. Clinically asymptomatic stage
3. Symptomatic HIV infection
4. Progression from HIV to AIDS.

The primary infection stage only lasts for a number of weeks and the person may also suffer from flu-like symptoms. About one fifth of people would suffer enough to see a doctor but HIV is rarely diagnosed on this alone. At this point the immune system is starting to react to the virus by manufacturing HIV antibodies and cytotoxic lymphocytes, a process known as seroconversion. An HIV test carried out before this process is complete may be negative or inconclusive.

On average the clinically asymptomatic stage lasts for ten years. Aside from swollen glands, a person is largely symptomless at this stage. HIV antibodies can now be found in the blood and therefore an HIV test will give a positive result. HIV is still active within the lymph nodes at this time. The viral load test measures the small amount of HIV which gets away from the lymph nodes. This is very important in the treatment of HIV.

The immune system becomes seriously damaged by HIV over the years. The lymph nodes and tissues are damaged or destroyed and the body cannot continue to replace the lost T-helper cells as the HIV becomes stronger and more varied. Symptoms develop as the immune system fails. The symptoms worsen as the immune system starts to slow down. This is the time when infections known as “opportunistic” infections and cancers can occur.

When the immune system becomes increasingly damaged and the illnesses are increasing in frequency and severity, an AIDS diagnosis is given.

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