Early symptoms of HIV can vary. However, some of the earliest signs and symptoms of HIV may include fever, night sweats, muscle aches, and rashes.

HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system. It can weaken a person’s immunity to the point where their body has difficulties fighting infections and diseases.

If a person receives treatment for HIV after early diagnosis, they are less likely to develop more severe complications.

The annual number of new HIV diagnoses has declined in the United States since the mid-1980s. In 2020, 30,635 people in the U.S. received an HIV diagnosis.

Historically, the virus disproportionally affects marginalized groups, among those with a diagnosis. For example, Black people and African Americans represent about 40% of those living with HIV despite comprising only 13% of the U.S. population as of 2019.

Meanwhile, Hispanic and Latino people represent about 25% of people living with HIV while only 18.5% of the population. The rate of new HIV infections among Black women is 11 times that of the rate of white women and four times that of Latina women.

Similarly, transgender people represent about 2% of new HIV diagnoses, and among them, the majority are Black or African American people.

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A person should never rely on symptoms alone to determine whether they have HIV. The only way they can know for sure is to undergo testing.

Early testing can help someone receive effective treatment and prevent transmission to other people.

The symptoms of HIV vary among individuals. However, early stage symptoms typically include the following:

However, not everyone will experience these symptoms.

How HIV affects the body

HIV attacks the immune system. It specifically attacks the CD4 cells, a subtype of a T cell group. T cells help the body fight off infections.

Without treatment, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells in the body, increasing a person’s risk of getting infections.

If HIV progresses to stage 3, a person will have a higher chance of developing several complications, including an increased risk of developing certain cancers and opportunistic infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides information on where individuals can find their nearest HIV testing center.

Do signs differ across genders?

Many HIV symptoms present regardless of biological sex. However, people with vaginas living with HIV are at a higher risk of vaginal yeast infections.

People living with HIV are at a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), regardless of sex or gender.

Doctors call the first stage of HIV an acute HIV infection. In the first few weeks after infection, people have large amounts of HIV in their blood and can easily spread it to others.

The first symptoms of HIV may develop within 2–4 weeks after infection, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, but some research suggests that it can take as long as 10 months.

Flu-like symptoms are the most common symptoms in the acute stage of HIV, also known as acute retroviral syndrome. Some symptoms a person may experience in this early stage, from most to least frequent, include:

  1. fatigue
  2. muscle pain
  3. a skin rash
  4. headaches
  5. a sore throat
  6. swollen lymph nodes
  7. joint pain
  8. night sweats
  9. diarrhea

Symptoms may last for a few days or several weeks, but not everyone with HIV will experience them.

Having these symptoms also does not mean that a person has HIV. These symptoms can occur with other infections, including the flu.

The only way a person can know for sure if they have HIV is to receive an HIV test.

The stages of HIV are as follows:

  • Stage 1 (acute HIV): A person may experience flu-like symptoms. At this point, high amounts of HIV are present in the blood, and it is easy for a person to spread it to others. This stage can last from a few weeks to a few months.
  • Stage 2 (chronic HIV): People also call this the clinical latency stage. The virus is still active but reproduces at much lower rates in the body. A person may not display symptoms during this stage. However, they should receive treatment to prevent progressing to stage 3.
  • Stage 3 (stage 3 HIV): Doctors formally referred to this stage as AIDS, but people now call it stage 3 HIV. If a person does not receive HIV treatment, the virus eventually weakens the body’s immune system and progresses to stage 3 HIV. At this stage, a person is more vulnerable to opportunistic infections and other complications. Without treatment, people in this stage typically survive for about 3 years.

A person who receives antiretroviral treatment for HIV during stage 2 may stay in this phase for several decades, and the disease may never progress to stage 3 HIV. Because of this, they are less likely to experience serious complications.

Additionally, a person who receives treatment during the earlier stages may have a reduced HIV viral load. If the viral load is undetectable in HIV tests, it will not transmit to other individuals.

HIV can transmit from one person to another in different ways.

According to the CDC, most people transmit HIV through anal and vaginal sex without using a barrier method, such as a condom. The virus can also spread through the use of needles or syringes during intravenous (IV) drug use.

People can acquire HIV through contact with bodily fluids that contain the virus. The only bodily fluids that can transmit HIV are:

  • blood
  • semen
  • pre-seminal fluid
  • rectal fluids
  • vaginal fluids
  • breast milk

HIV can also pass to another person when these fluids enter their bloodstream, either through an injection or coming into contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue. Mucous membranes are present inside the rectum, vagina, penis, and mouth.

Additionally, a pregnant person can transmit the condition to an infant during pregnancy, although this is not always the case. Many pregnant people living with HIV can give birth to an infant without HIV if they receive the appropriate prenatal care and follow their treatment plan.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that without any medical treatment, transmission rates from pregnant parents to their infants range from 15–45%. If an infant receives treatment during and after pregnancy, these rates can fall below 5%.

When can a person transmit HIV?

In the early stage of HIV infection, the levels of the virus in the blood and semen are high, meaning a person can easily transmit the virus during this time. Additionally, transmission is more likely during this primary acute stage than in the following stage.

During stage 2, a person with HIV experiences fewer symptoms. However, they can still transmit the virus to others.

According to the CDC, a person with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV to another individual. This is because HIV treatment suppresses the virus, leaving a low presence of the virus in the blood.

When medical professionals can no longer detect HIV in a test, the person cannot transmit it to others.

If a person believes they may have had exposure to HIV, they should undergo testing immediately.

People with a higher risk of HIV, such as those who work in healthcare or those who have sex without using protection, may also wish to consider routine testing.

Early diagnosis of HIV is crucial for preventing other potentially life threatening health conditions. Once a person receives a diagnosis, effective treatments are available.

Early diagnosis is also vital for helping prevent the transmission of HIV. If an individual knows they have the virus, they can take steps to avoid spreading it to others. One way to do this is through antiretroviral treatment.

What is a fourth-generation HIV test? Find out here.

If a person with HIV does not receive treatment, the condition may eventually progress to stage 3 HIV. Thanks to modern medical advances, current HIV infections rarely reach stage 3 in the U.S.

Stage 3 HIV is not a specific disease but a syndrome with a wide range of identifiable symptoms. The symptoms can also stem from other illnesses because opportunistic infections take advantage of the body’s reduced immune activity.

Symptoms include:

  • rapid weight loss
  • severe night sweats
  • continual fevers
  • extreme fatigue
  • unexplained tiredness
  • prolonged swelling of lymph glands in the groin, neck, or armpits
  • bouts of diarrhea lasting longer than a week
  • sores near the mouth, genitals, or anus
  • pneumonia
  • blotches on or under the skin
  • blotches inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
  • memory loss
  • depression
  • other neurological disorders

If a person recognizes the early signs of HIV and seeks prompt diagnosis and treatment, there is a viable chance of preventing progression to stage 3.

With appropriate management of the virus, a person with HIV can live a long and healthy life.

What are HIV and AIDS? Find out more.

Treatment will depend on the individual and their complications. A person can consult a healthcare team to develop a suitable plan.

Antiretroviral drugs

For most people with HIV, antiretroviral therapy can help manage the virus. There are different types of antiretroviral medication, and the person may need a combination of drugs.

These medications can reduce the level of the virus in the blood until it becomes undetectable in tests. When this happens, there is no longer a risk of transmitting the virus to another person.

Following the prescribed treatment plan is essential to keep the virus at this low level.

Other therapies

People with HIV are more susceptible to other health conditions than those without HIV and may need specific treatment.

HIV affects the immune system, so an individual may be more likely to develop an infection, such as viral hepatitis or tuberculosis. A doctor can prescribe medication to prevent or treat these and other infections.

Other possible complications include cardiovascular disease, cancer, and some neurological disorders. If these arise, a healthcare team will help a person make a suitable treatment plan.

People with HIV who receive an early diagnosis have a viable chance of receiving effective treatment. This treatment can help them stay healthy and maintain their quality of life.

Anyone who notices symptoms or believes they may have contracted HIV should ask about testing immediately. With early testing and treatment, the outlook for many people with HIV is promising.

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