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.

Early symptoms

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

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Body rash
  • Tiredness
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Swollen glands
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea

These symptoms are of course very common to many illnesses including colds and flu. Therefore, the only real way to know if you have HIV is to get tested.

These symptoms usually occur two to six weeks after transmission and 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.

Symptoms of HIV over longer periods

After the first stage, there follows a long period where there are fewer symptoms which 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 find that it takes longer to get over colds and other infections in this time. 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 their 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.

This is likely to be a sign that the person may have entered the third stage: the 'symptomatic stage' during which Infections such as pneumonia and TB are more likely with such a weakened immune system. 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). However, most people with HIV who take the appropriate treatment early 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.

You should always consider a test if:

  • You have recently had unprotected sex (without a condom) with a new partner
  • A sexual partner tells you they are HIV positive
  • You have shared needles or injecting equipment
  • You have had a tattoo or piercing without a sterile needle
  • You or your partner have had unprotected sex (without a condom) with other partners
  • You or your partner have another sexually transmitted infection
  • You are pregnant or planning a pregnancy
  • There is any chance that an exchange of bodily fluids may have taken place with someone who is, or may be, HIV positive

Early diagnosis and treatment

Research has shown that early diagnosis is important as it allows HIV to be monitored and managed, so that the person receives the most appropriate care. 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.