Early Stage HIV

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2019

An individual who is newly infected with HIV may show symptoms early on, and then have no symptoms for years after, depending on how quickly HIV progresses. The symptoms that can occur early on are often non-specific, and easy to mistake for another illness, like the flu or another short-term virus. It’s also possible to have no early symptoms of HIV at all.

In fact, about a third of individuals who are newly infected with HIV may not show any of these early flu-like symptoms.1 It’s also important to remember that just because you have symptoms of early-stage HIV, doesn’t mean it can’t be another illness. This is why medical testing for HIV is so essential, and is the only way to know for sure whether or not you have the virus.

What happens during acute HIV infection?

When a person acquired HIV, their body responds to the virus and makes an effort to fight it off. When this happens, an individual’s immune system gets activated and they start making antibodies. Antibodies are special proteins that circulate in the blood and fight off specific invaders.

The process of making these new antibodies against HIV is called seroconversion, and it happens about one to four weeks after an individual acquires the virus.1,2 Testing for these new antibodies in the blood is one method of HIV testing that can help diagnose a person with the virus.

Early signs and symptoms

The whole immune system fighting the virus and producing antibodies is what causes the initial symptoms of HIV. This early-stage period is also called acute HIV infection or primary HIV infection. Some of the common symptoms experienced during this time include, but are not limited to:1-4

  • Fever (greater than 100.4ºF or 38ºC)
  • Headache
  • Swollen lymph nodes (especially in the armpits and neck)
  • Chills
  • Sore muscles or joints
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Rash (especially across the neck, face, and upper chest)
  • Dry cough
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss

These symptoms will not be present in everyone, and will often go away within two weeks. A small proportion of individuals may get ulcers in or around their mouth, esophagus, penis, or anus.3 However, as with other early HIV symptoms, noticing ulcers in these areas does not mean a person certainly has HIV. These may be signs of another condition, including another sexually transmitted infection.

The importance of HIV testing and treatment

Although early-stage HIV may not be life-threatening, and an individual may be able to ignore early symptoms and carry on with their daily life, it is important to diagnose the virus as soon as possible.

During acute HIV stage, an individual’s viral load can be very high, making them very infectious to others.3,4 A viral load is a measure of how much active virus is in an individual’s blood. It can be difficult to detect HIV right away, so if you think you may have been exposed to the virus recently and could be infected, it’s important to check in with a doctor or healthcare provider as soon as possible, and ask for an HIV test that can detect recent infection.1

Additionally, the sooner an individual starts treatment for HIV, the better their overall health outcomes. Getting tested to find out your status, and undergoing regular testing (if appropriate), can help you find out if you have the virus as soon as possible, and lead to a better overall prognosis.1,4

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