The first symptoms of HIV usually appear 2–4 weeks after a person has exposure to the virus, but in some instances, the symptoms do not appear for months to years after exposure.

HIV is a virus that causes a condition of the same name. Its final stage is AIDS, which is a serious condition that occurs when there has been significant damage to a person’s immune system.

HIV spreads through sexual fluids, blood, and breast milk. In 2015, statistics suggested that 94% of HIV infections that year were due to sexual contact.

Keep reading to learn more about the early symptoms of HIV, some details on the timeline of the condition, and some information on diagnosis and when to contact a doctor.

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Not everyone who gets HIV will immediately show symptoms of the condition. However, if any symptoms of HIV do occur, they will usually appear 2–4 weeks after a person’s exposure to the virus.

In some cases, however, symptoms will only appear months to years later.

Doctors find it helpful to break HIV down into the following three stages:

  • stage 1, or acute HIV infection
  • stage 2, or chronic HIV infection
  • stage 3, or AIDS

These different stages do not take a set amount of time to progress. The rate at which a person’s HIV progresses depends on many different factors, including the effects of the medication they are taking.

The sections below will look at each of these stages in more detail.

Stage 1: Acute HIV infection

Acute HIV infection refers to when a person experiences certain symptoms of HIV very quickly after exposure to the virus.

These symptoms include:

  • fatigue
  • muscle pain
  • rash
  • headache
  • sore throat
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • joint pain
  • night sweats
  • diarrhea

Some research indicates that some of these symptoms are more likely to emerge than others. The list above places the symptoms in order of decreasing likelihood.

Stage 2: Chronic HIV infection

According to some research, the following can be symptoms of chronic HIV infection:

  • vaginal candidiasis, a yeast infection
  • oral hairy leukoplakia, which causes white, fuzzy-looking patches on the tongue
  • shingles
  • nerve damage, or neuropathy
  • cervical dysplasia
  • idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, a condition that stops the blood from clotting properly

If this stage progresses, the person’s immune system will seriously deteriorate. This will make it more difficult for their body to fight various infections and other conditions.

As a result, a number of conditions could affect the person, including:

Stage 3: AIDS

AIDS occurs when a person’s HIV infection has drastically lowered their CD4 cell count.

CD4 cells, or T cells, are a type of white blood cell. Their function is to protect the body from disease-causing microbes. HIV infects these cells, making them unable to carry out their function.

A normal CD4 count is 500–1,400 CD4 cells per microliter (mcl). A person has AIDS if their CD4 count is under 200 CD4 cells per mcl.

Learn more about the timeline of HIV here.

Anyone who is showing symptoms of HIV should contact a doctor as soon as possible. This is especially important if the individual has recently had sexual contact with someone else or shared a needle with someone else.

HIV can remain asymptomatic for a long time. For this reason, anyone who has recently had unprotected sex and is concerned about exposure to HIV should contact a doctor as soon as they can, even if they do not have any symptoms. The same goes for anyone who has recently shared a needle.

It can be difficult to discuss the possibility of having HIV. However, without proper treatment, HIV can be life threatening. In these situations, it is very important for people to put their long-term health first and to discuss the matter with a doctor.

Doctors have several different ways to diagnose HIV.

Fourth-generation tests are very accurate. These involve testing a small sample of a person’s blood for HIV. Other rapid tests are also available. Some of these work with a blood sample, while others work with saliva.

Sometimes, doctors may also use polymerase chain reaction tests, which detect HIV viral load. This is the amount of HIV in a person’s blood.

When someone’s HIV infection progresses to a certain point, a doctor may diagnose AIDS.

Doctors can diagnose AIDS in two different ways: A person has AIDS if their CD4 count is under 200 CD4 cells per mcl or if they have any AIDS-defining conditions.

AIDS-defining conditions are conditions that a person is more likely to get if they have HIV. These include:

  • Pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia, a type of fungal pneumonia
  • tuberculosis
  • disseminated MAC disease
  • cervical cancer
  • fungal infections, such as candidiasis, coccidioidomycosis, and cryptococcosis
  • cryptosporidiosis
  • CMV disease
  • Kaposi’s sarcoma
  • lymphoma

HIV is a serious condition. However, scientists have made a lot of progress in treating it.

A person’s outlook depends on how quickly they receive medication and how well they respond to the treatment. Medication is able to raise a person’s CD4 count and decrease their viral load to undetectable levels.

As one article notes, a person with HIV who has a normal CD4 count has the same life expectancy as someone without HIV.

However, someone with untreated AIDS may only live for 1–2 years after their first opportunistic infection. Opportunistic infections are those that a person’s immune system cannot fight off because it is severely weakened due to HIV.

With the right medication, a person can go from having AIDS to having HIV without AIDS.

The first symptoms of HIV tend to appear around 2–4 weeks after a person’s exposure to the virus. However, it can sometimes take months to years for any symptoms to appear.

Without treatment, HIV can be life threatening. However, modern medicine allows many people with HIV to live perfectly normal lives.

The key is to detect and start treating the condition as early as possible.