Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Dec 07, 2018
Last Modified Date: Dec 07, 2018
Published Date: Aug 03, 2017
Early HIV Detection Can Save Lives: Learn to Recognize the Symptoms
When it comes to Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection, early detection is essential to ensure the prompt treatment necessary to control the virus. With early treatment, progression from HIV infection to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) can be slowed significantly, improving a person's prognosis and quality of life dramatically. Given the importance of early diagnosis and treatment, knowing the symptoms of HIV is important for everyone, increasing chances that the infection will be recognized in its earliest, most treatable stages.
HIV and AIDS
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) weakens the immune system in infected individuals leaving them open to contracting AIDS. The primary means by which it is transmitted is through sexual contact, but the virus may also be contracted through exposure to infected blood and can be transmitted by a mother to her child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
Left untreated, the progressive damage to the immune system almost always leads to the development of AIDS although the time frame varies. AIDS is a chronic condition in which a severely compromised immune system makes the body vulnerable to opportunistic infections, many of which are life threatening.
There is no cure for HIV, but treatments have been developed that are very effective in slowing the progression of the disease. These treatments have allowed many HIV positive individuals to live long, full lives by delaying or even preventing the onset of AIDS, as well as significantly reducing the number of AIDS deaths. However, earlier is better when it comes to effective HIV treatment, so knowing the early symptoms of HIV and getting tested at any sign of them is essential.
Who is at Risk?
Anyone who is sexually active is at risk for contracting HIV. That said, there are certain factors that place individuals at greater than average risk. Among the most important of these is:
- Unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex
- Multiple sex partners
- Use of intravenous drugs, particularly when syringes and other equipment is shared
- Infection with other sexually transmitted diseases
- Infection with hepatitis, tuberculosis or malaria
- Sexual activity with individuals with any of the above risk factors
Primary or Acute HIV Infection: The Source of the Early Symptoms of HIV Primary or acute HIV infection are terms used to describe the early stages of HIV infection, when an individual is newly infected with the virus, also known as acute retroviral syndrome (ARS). This phase of HIV infection typically develops within 2 to 4 weeks of initial HIV infection, but may appear as late as three months after contraction of the virus. Between 50 and 90 percent of patients will present symptoms of HIV during this phase, as their immune system reacts to the invasion of the HIV virus. Symptoms, which are typically flu-like, last an average of 14 days, but may persist for several months in some cases. Most commonly reported early symptoms of HIV infection include:
- Night sweats
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Mouth sores
Individuals who experience these symptoms of HIV should be tested for infection, especially if known risk factors for HIV exposure are present. Since the immune system has not yet produced antibodies against HIV at this phase, standard tests, which detect those antibodies, will produce a negative result in primary HIV infection cases. HIV test that look for the virus itself, such as HIV-1, Qualitative, RNA tests, are necessary for an accurate diagnosis. Recognizing these early symptoms of HIV infection is essential to early detection, since once they disappear, most HIV infected individuals will show no further telltale signs that might prompt them to seek testing for up to 10 years.
Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is the primary approach used in the treatment of HIV. ART uses a combination of drugs to slow progression of the disease by inhibiting the ability of the virus to replicate, decreasing a patient's viral load to less damaging levels. In many cases, viral load can be reduced to undetectable level. However, it is important to remember that individuals with undetectable HIV levels and no symptoms of HIV are still infected with the virus and can transmit the infection to others. Treatment, in most cases, will be long-term or even lifelong.
Some of the media in this article come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification numbers #8431.