HIV is a virus that affects the immune system. The lymph nodes form part of this system. When a person is exposed to HIV, they may experience swollen lymph nodes.

A lymph node is a small, bean-shaped mass of tissue. The nodes are part of the lymphatic system, which helps the body fight infections. They are sometimes incorrectly referred to as glands. However, glands make or secrete substances, whereas lymph nodes only act as filters.

A lymph node is considered swollen if it measures about half an inch wide. A range of infections can cause this to happen. Swollen lymph nodes can be an early symptom of HIV.

The lymph nodes in the neck, groin, or armpits are most often affected.

There are about 600 lymph nodes throughout the body. Some are in deep tissue, but others can more easily be located in clusters closer to the skin. During an infection, a person may feel them in the armpit, groin, and neck areas.

People should see a doctor:

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Swollen lymph nodes may be an early symptom of HIV. However, there may also be other causes behind the swelling.
  • if their lymph nodes have been swollen for more than 2 weeks
  • if their lymph nodes are hard or seem to be growing rapidly
  • if the skin over the nodes is red and inflamed

People should also see a doctor if they have swollen lymph nodes and are also experiencing any of the following symptoms:

When attempting to diagnose the cause of swollen lymph nodes, a doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about symptoms and recent activities.

Doctors may also require blood or tissue samples to help them make a diagnosis. Fluid from the lymph node may also be extracted and placed into a culture to analyze what class of bacteria may grow, if any. Swollen lymph nodes may also be the result of a viral illness.

If a person has swollen lymph nodes and it is possible that they have recently been exposed to HIV, they should speak to a doctor about what testing options are available.

If HIV is present, early treatment can make all the difference in preventing or delaying the progression of the virus.

Other early symptoms of HIV

Early symptoms of HIV infection include:

  • fever
  • a rash that is not easily explained by other factors, such as medication or allergies
  • sore throat
  • fatigue, caused by the inflammatory response generated by the overworked immune system
  • aches and pains in the muscles and joints
  • new or serious headache
  • diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and lack of appetite
  • night sweats, due to a fever caused by infection

Other causes of swollen lymph nodes

Swollen lymph nodes can be a symptom of HIV, but there are also many other causes.

Common infections that are associated with swollen lymph nodes include the common cold, measles, strep throat, ear infections, and tooth infections.

Less common causes include tuberculosis (TB), syphilis, and toxoplasmosis.

Swollen lymph nodes can also be a sign of cancer such as leukemia, or lymphoma, which is a cancer of the immune cells.

If a person does not receive treatment for HIV, they can become more prone to other infections and diseases, such as TB and lymphoma, over time. These can result in swollen lymph nodes.

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A doctor will take into account a patient's full history when treating swollen lymph nodes. If test results show that the cause is HIV, antiretrovirals may be prescribed.

When treating swollen lymph nodes, doctors will take into account the person's age, medical history, their current health condition, and how well they tolerate certain medicines.

If the underlying cause of the swollen lymph nodes is HIV, antiretroviral therapy (ART) is used to manage the infection.

Antiretrovirals cannot cure HIV, but the drugs are able to reduce the amount of HIV in the bloodstream, also known as the viral load.

The goal of antiretrovirals is to reduce the viral load to undetectable levels, which is below 200 copies / milliliter (ml).

At these levels, the virus will not affect a person's overall health, and the virus will not be transmittable.

However, having an undetectable viral load does not mean that the person is completely free of the virus. It is important to continue to use the medication and to monitor the levels of the virus in the blood to ensure they stay undetectable.

There are three main stages of HIV infection: acute infection, chronic infection, and AIDS.

Stage 1: During the first stage of the disease, acute HIV infection, the levels of the virus in the blood are very high, as the body is not yet able to mount an immune response.

Stage 2: The second stage of infection is chronic HIV infection. HIV continues to multiply in the blood during this stage, but at lower levels than in acute infection. People at this stage of infection may not present symptoms, but they can still transmit the virus if they are not receiving treatment.

Stage 3: Without treatment, the virus may progress to stage 3, also known as AIDS. HIV and AIDS are different conditions and separate diagnoses. While HIV is a virus, AIDS is a syndrome, or collection of health conditions. These conditions result from the impact of the virus on the immune system. This usually happens within 10 years.

By this stage, a person's immune system has been so badly damaged by HIV that their body is unable to fight infections that a healthy immune system might be able to. People with a diagnosis of AIDS who do not receive treatment will typically live for another 3 years.

In the past, HIV often led to life-threatening complications, but with treatment, life expectancy is increasing. Recent studies have found that, with the use of antiretrovirals, people can expect a lifespan "approaching that of the general population."

Antiretroviral medication can also reduce the "viral load," the amount of virus in the blood, to "undetectable" levels. While the virus levels are below 200 copies / milliliter (ml), the body will stay healthy, and the virus cannot be transmitted.

However, it is important to note that low levels of the virus must be maintained, and it is important to follow the medical regime and attend regular health checks.

Complications

Without treatment, the HIV virus can eventually increase the risk of lymphoma and other types of cancer.

AIDS-related lymphoma occurs when cancer cells form from immune cells of people with stage 3 HIV.

Symptoms include:

  • weight loss
  • fever
  • night sweats
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • a feeling of fullness below the ribs

The condition can be diagnosed from a physical exam and by using blood tests to count the numbers of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets in the blood.

Rarely, AIDS-related lymphoma can occur outside of the lymph nodes, in the bone marrow, liver, brain, and stomach.