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

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 remained stable in recent years in the United States. In 2019, 36,801 people in the U.S. received an HIV diagnosis.

However, historically marginalized groups are disproportionally affected among those with a diagnosis. For example, Black people and African Americans represented 40% of those living with HIV despite comprising only 13% of the U.S. population.

Meanwhile, Hispanics and Latinos represent 25% of people living with HIV, equaling 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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Photography courtesy of CDC/ C. Goldsmith, P. Feorino, E. L. Palmer, W. R. McManus/Wikimedia & Anastasia Katozova/EyeEm/Getty Images

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 develops to stage 3, they will also have a higher chance of developing cancer.

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

Do signs differ across genders?

While many symptoms are present regardless of biological sex, people with vaginas who have HIV may experience additional symptoms such as vaginal yeast infections and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

According to the Office on Women’s Health, some health issues, including STIs and vaginal yeast infections, are more common and more serious in females who have HIV.

After the early stage of HIV infection, the virus moves into the clinical latency stage, which some people call chronic HIV. The virus is still active during this stage but reproduces at much lower rates in the body.

A person may not have any symptoms during the clinical latency stage of HIV. Some people who are not taking any medication to treat HIV may remain in this phase for 10–15 years. However, others may progress past the latency stage more quickly.

A person who receives antiretroviral treatment for HIV may stay in the clinical latency stage for several decades. During this stage, they are less likely to experience serious complications. When the levels of this virus in the blood are very low, it will not transmit to another individual.

For more in-depth information and resources on HIV and AIDS, visit our dedicated hub.

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

According to the CDC, the most common way of transmitting HIV is through sexual contact without using a barrier method such as a condom. The virus can also spread through the use of needles or syringes in intravenous 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
  • preejaculate
  • 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.

A pregnant person can also transmit the condition to an infant during pregnancy, although this is not always the case. Many pregnant individuals who live 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 parent to baby range from 15 to 45%. If a patient receives treatment during and after pregnancy, these rates can fall below 5%.

When is HIV contagious?

In the early stage of HIV infection, the levels of the virus in the blood and semen are high. 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 the clinical latency stage, 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 HIV is not detectable in a test, it is not transmissible.

If a person believes they may have had exposure to HIV, they should undergo testing immediately. People with a higher risk of HIV due to their workplace or other types of exposure 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, also known as AIDS. 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 stage 3 from developing.

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. The person’s healthcare team will help them make 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.

Find out more about antiretroviral drugs.

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 person’s healthcare team will help them 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. With early testing and treatment, the outlook for many people with HIV is positive.

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