Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a contagious disease that currently has no cure. Without treatment, it can severely weaken a person’s immune system and can be fatal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with HIV do not always have symptoms in the early stages.

When a person does have early symptoms of HIV, these may resemble a cold or flu.

Testing is the only way to know if a person has HIV.

This article will describe possible early symptoms of HIV, explaining how they may appear differently in males and females. It will also provide information on possible later symptoms, and explain the processes of diagnosis and treatment. It will then offer information on the outlook for a person living with HIV.

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According to HIV.gov, the early symptoms of HIV appear 2–4 weeks after contracting the virus in about two-thirds of people.

This means that a significant number of people with HIV will have no symptoms.

The early symptoms of HIV can include:

As the condition progresses, people with HIV may develop a weakened immune system.

Infections that were once minor, such as canker sores in the mouth, or a tooth abscess or cavity, may cause significant pain. It may become more difficult for people with HIV to recover from these infections.

A person may notice that they have more frequent minor infections, such as colds or yeast infections.

They may also notice that they are sick more often than before, or for longer periods of time.

Some people may get very ill from infections that would normally not be life threatening.

Learn more about symptoms of HIV here.

Early HIV symptoms are very subtle, if they appear at all, so a person might not notice them. For this reason, it may be difficult to notice differences in symptoms between males and females.

According to the CDC, men made up 81% of new HIV diagnoses in 2018.

As of 2018, the rate of HIV in women has remained stable.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, when symptoms do develop later, they are generally similar in males and females with HIV.

As the disease progresses, it continues to weaken the immune system. Over time, this can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

The symptoms of AIDS a person might experience include:

Opportunistic infections

Infections that are usually relatively rare or harmless are more common among people with AIDS.

Examples of these infections may include:

Chronic illness

A person with AIDS may experience chronic flu-like symptoms, including:

Physical changes

AIDS may cause severe weight loss.

Pneumonia

A person may develop pneumonia after a minor infection. This may happen suddenly and without warning.

Changes in mental health

AIDS can affect neurological functioning.

A diagnosis can be a very stressful experience and could lead to depression.

A number of mental health resources are available to help treat depression.

Learn about mental health resources here.

Symptoms during treatment

People who get treatment can enter what is known as “clinical latency.” This means that their viral load is very low and they have no symptoms of HIV. It is still possible, though less likely, to transmit HIV to a partner.

A 2020 review states that without treatment most people with HIV develop AIDS within 10 years. Treatment can delay or even prevent a person from developing AIDS.

A specific test using blood or saliva can detect HIV.

The type of test, and how soon after exposure a person can test, will affect the accuracy of the results.

Nucleic acid tests

Nucleic acid tests are tests on blood that doctors take from a vein.

These tests can give a positive result 10–33 days after a person contracts the virus.

Antigen or antibody tests

Scientists can perform antigen or antibody tests on blood from a vein 18–45 days after a person has come into contact with the virus.

Scientists can also perform antigen or antibody tests on blood from a finger prick test. These tests work 18–90 days after a person contracts the virus.

Antibody tests

Antibody tests can give a positive result 23–90 days after exposure to the virus.

The majority of self-tests are antibody tests.

A person can usually take an antibody test sooner after exposure if the test is with blood from a vein. They can do this sooner than a finger prick test or oral fluid test.

Accuracy

Testing errors, especially with home self-testing kits, can produce false results.

To get the most accurate results, test again a few weeks or months later.

Regular testing

Certain factors may mean a person should get an HIV test at least every year, according to the CDC. These factors include:

  • if a male has sex with another male
  • if a person has a sexual partner who has HIV
  • if a person has had more than one sex partner since their last HIV test
  • if a person has injected drugs and shared drug injection equipment, such as needles and syringes, with others
  • if a person has received a diagnosis of another sexually transmitted disease
  • if a person has received a diagnosis of tuberculosis (TB)

Learn more about home HIV testing here.

There is no cure for HIV. However, treatment can:

  • slow the progression of the disease
  • reduce viral load
  • prevent many HIV complications

With treatment, many people with HIV can live long and healthy lives.

To get the most benefits, it is important to get treatment as early as possible.

Antiretrovirals

Doctors treat HIV with a group of drugs called antiretrovirals.

These drugs reduce the number of HIV virions in the body. HIV virions attack the immune system.

Reducing the risk

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a medication people can take to reduce their risk of getting HIV.

PrEP is 99% effective in preventing the spread of HIV through sex if a person takes it as a doctor has prescribed.

However, PrEP will not treat HIV in someone who already has it.

A person who has sex with people who have or might have HIV can use this drug, along with safer sex practices, to lower their risk.

Other people at high risk of HIV, such as people who share needles, should also consider using PrEP.

Learn more about preventing HIV here.

People with HIV can live long lives with antiretroviral treatment.

A 2020 paper found that young people who take HIV medication have a similar life expectancy to those without HIV. However, they have fewer years of good health.

It is worth mentioning that this study looked only at insured adults, who typically have faster access to quality care and antiretroviral drugs.

Other factors may also affect the long-term outlook, such as:

  • access to quality medical care
  • how long a person has HIV before they receive treatment
  • whether a person has underlying health issues

A potential HIV diagnosis can be frightening.

However, effective treatments are available.

People who think they may have had recent exposure might look for any potential symptoms.

The only way to know for sure is to seek testing and to repeat the test a few weeks later.

With prompt testing, it is possible to get quality treatment that helps a person live a healthy life.