Many symptoms of acute HIV infection can be mistaken for other, more common illnesses.
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a frightening epidemic with an estimated 2.7 million people worldwide infected in 2007 alone, according to the international HIV and AIDS charity AVERT.
HIV infection occurs through contact with another person's blood, semen or vaginal secretions (or breast milk, in rare cases). HIV is usually transmitted through sexual contact or intravenous drug use with contaminated needles or syringes. The virus may also be passed from a mother to her unborn child. Due to careful screening, HIV is now rarely transmitted through blood transfusions.
When someone becomes infected with HIV, a condition known as acute HIV may develop. If acute HIV produces symptoms, the symptoms will generally appear two to four weeks after infection and may precede early symptomatic HIV infection. In most people infected with HIV, the disease will eventually progress to advanced HIV disease, or AIDS.
The symptoms of acute HIV infection can easily be mistaken for those of mononucleosis, the flu or other types of viral illnesses. Common symptoms include fever, swollen lymph glands, headache and fatigue. These symptoms could be accompanied by a rash, achy muscles, sore throat, night sweats, or oral and esophageal sores. The illness can last from a few days to about four weeks and clears up without medication.
People with acute HIV infection have very high levels of the virus in their blood. It is easier to detect the presence of HIV in someone with acute infection using a viral load test on the blood. The other type of HIV test, an antibody test, can take two months - and sometimes even longer - to detect the presence of HIV antibodies. In other words, a patient could get a negative test result if he or she tested one month after infection, but may still have the virus.
Once HIV has been positively identified, patients must take steps to protect themselves and others. Since HIV is a disease that cannot be cured, patients should monitor their health and look for symptoms of disease progression. At some point, a patient will probably choose to begin antiretroviral drug therapy. Patients can also promote their outlook by choosing a healthy lifestyle: eating nutritious foods, exercising (but not to the point of exhaustion), maintaining low stress levels, and practicing safe sex.
Currently, treatment for HIV includes a rigorous course of antiretroviral drugs therapies. There are differing opinions on when to begin the therapy: Some believe it's best to wait for symptomatic HIV infection to occur, while others advocate starting therapy as soon as the virus has been detected. The drugs tend to be expensive, have a number of unpleasant side effects, and must be taken on a regular schedule. Adherence to the prescribed medications' timing and dosage schedule has an enormous impact on the drugs' effectiveness.